Russian Offensive Hailed in Mideast

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 30, 2008

CAIRO -- For some in the Middle East, the images of Russian tanks rolling into Georgia in defiance of U.S. opposition have revived warm memories of the Cold War.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flew last week to Moscow, where he endorsed Russia's offensive in Georgia and, according to Russian officials, sought additional Russian weapon systems.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's influential son, echoed the delight expressed in much of the Arab news media. "What happened in Georgia is a good sign, one that means America is no longer the sole world power setting the rules of the game," the younger Gaddafi was quoted as telling the Russian daily Kommersant. "There is a balance in the world now. Russia is resurging, which is good for us, for the entire Middle East."

In Turkey, an American and European ally that obtains more than two-thirds of its natural gas from Russia, the reaction was more complex. Turks watched as the United States, NATO and a divided European Union hesitated in the face of Russian military assertiveness, leaving them more doubtful than they already were about depending on the West to secure U.S.-backed alternative oil and gas supply lines.

"This Russian invasion of Georgia is a turning point in the relations of the Atlantic community with Russia, including, of course, Turkey," Ozden Sanberk, a former Turkish ambassador to Britain, said by telephone from Turkey. "There is a change in the paradigm, a change in assessment."

Since Aug. 8, when Russia sent troops and tanks across its southern border in a confrontation with Georgia's pro-Western government, many Turkish newspapers have urged the Turkish government to improve relations with Russia, in pragmatic acceptance of the possibility that Russia could directly or indirectly control most oil and gas supplies from Central Asia to Europe.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the past two weeks has sought to persuade leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia to put their political differences aside in the interest of keeping oil and gas flowing.

Russian leaders, angry at Turkish military aid to Georgia, repeatedly refused to take Erdogan's calls, Turkish news media reported.

Russia has been paying closer attention to the needs of the United States' least favorite Middle East countries, Syria and Iran.

Russia's ambassador in Tehran, Alexander Sadovnikov, told Iranian news media this week that Russia was committed to helping Iran finish work on its Bushehr nuclear plant as soon as possible. At the same time, Iran's oil minister declared his country's eagerness to do more business with Russia's main energy company, Gazprom.

The United States has tried to discourage European countries and Turkey from turning to Iran for oil and gas. With Russia demonstrating its ability to control supplies through Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus, Iran's supplies are going to look more attractive to U.S. allies in Europe, analysts noted.

And with the United States and Russia at odds, Iran also can expect more help from Russia in blocking U.S. efforts at the U.N. Security Council and other international bodies to sanction Iran over its nuclear program, said Flynt Leverett, a former Bush administration Middle East policy director and now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington.

Especially with Assad's visit to Moscow, Russians are signaling that there is more they can do to undermine U.S. policies, Leverett said.

Syrian officials this week denied reports in Russian news media that Assad had sought Russian ballistic missiles on his visit to Moscow and had offered to host a Russian naval post again, as Syria did in the Cold War to ward off any attack by Israel.

Iranian officials, mindful of a possible U.S. or Israeli strike, also have voiced hopes of obtaining Russia's most advanced antiaircraft missile systems.

In Israel and the United States, there is "definitely rising concern Russia may go ahead and deliver those systems as a way of further indicating how unhappy it is with U.S. policy," Leverett said.

Russia, however, also has been building relations and trade with Israel, and has denied selling its most advanced systems to Syria or Iran. Syria itself is in indirect peace talks with Israel. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that Russia was ready to sell Syria arms of a "defensive character that do not violate the strategic balance of power in the Middle East."

Israel said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert planned to travel to Russia to discuss any Syria-Russia arms deals, amid statements from Israeli officials that the arms could be used to bolster Syrian ally Hezbollah.

Middle East governments have experience with Russian-made weapons, which haven't worked so well, said Abdel-Moneim Said, director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. Egyptians still blame their defeats in wars against Israel partly on their Russian-supplied weapons.

Many Arab analysts initially cheered Russia's flexing of its military muscles. An opinion piece in the United Arab Emirates-based Gulf News called it "long overdue." Editorials in some Arab news media this week and last expressed second thoughts, questioning whether Russia has the stability, surety of purpose or strength to be a leader among countries.

"All that ended up to be a kind of nostalgia, or looking for a new kind of Cold War, when there was not only one, single power dominating the world, the United States, and its ally, Israel," Said said.

Now, "there's a realization that Russia has a lot of interests with the West. Also that Russia is still a limited power," he said. "It's no match. There is no new Cold War coming."

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