Moscow Set to Resume its Influence With Damascus - July, 2010

To the dismay of Tel Aviv and Washington, the Bear is once again becoming a growing factor in Middle Eastern politics. During the volatile years that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow's political presence in Middle East greatly diminished. However, as we now can see, times are indeed changing and Russia is making a comeback in the region. Most people do not know that there is a significant Russian military presence in Syria today and that it has been surging as of late. Moscow has had its eyes set on the strategic Syrian port city of Tartus for many years and it has been gradually increasing its naval presence there. Although not much is known about the Russian military presence in Syria, it is said that in addition to the naval presence in Tartus there are Russian combat units stationed in other parts of Syria as well. According to unconfirmed reports there have even been some incidences between Russian and Israeli forces in the region during the past several years. Nevertheless, Russia's presence in Syria may actually explain why Washington and Tel Aviv have not been as overtly aggressive against Damascus as they have been against other regional nations that also do not follow their dictates. Immediately after visiting Turkey last month, Russian president Medvedev paid an official historic first visit to Syria where he signed several trade and arms deals. From Europe to Central Asia to the Middle East, Moscow is remarking its territory. Interestingly, China also seems to have taken some interest in Damascus. The following are several news reports that highlight this matter.

Arevordi


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Inside Story - Russia's role in the Middle East (May): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkrF_Ke5emw

Inside Story - Russia's role in the Middle East (February): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOWsv2EZsoM


Syria: we'll host Russian missile system: http://www.youtube.com/user/RussiaToday#p/search15/VNd5sznQo68

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Moscow Set to Resume its Influence With Damascus

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is to pay an official visit to Syria on May 11 for the first time in the history of bilateral relations. Syria, which was the Soviet Union's main strategic ally in the Middle East throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, was simply dropped out of the list of Moscow's foreign policy priorities in the early 1990s. Damascus perceived the break-up of the U.S.S.R., along with Moscow's decision to renounce global confrontation with Washington and the restoration of Russian-Israeli diplomatic relations in 1991, as a betrayal of the Arab world's interests and as a global Zionist conspiracy. Damascus believed this 19 years ago, and many Syrians still think the same way. However, the most pragmatic members of the Syrian political elite headed by President Bashar al-Assad have always aspired to have business and military cooperation with Moscow and have counted on Russia's political support on the Middle East peace settlement.

Syria's main demand within this peace process is for the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. The ice in Russian-Syrian relations in the 1990s began to thaw in January 2005, after Bashar al-Assad paid his first visit to Moscow, which resulted in Russian then-President Vladimir Putin writing off 73% of Syria's former Soviet debts ($9.8 billion) in exchange for new guaranteed Russian weapons contracts. Russia currently delivers MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters, Strelets launch units accommodating short-range surface-to-air missiles of the Igla (SA-18 Grouse) man-portable air defense system (MANPADS), and medium-range Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound) and Buk-M2 (SA-17 Grizzly) SAMs to Syria. Although Damascus would like to receive S-300PMU Favorit (SA-20 Gargoyle) long-range SAMs and Iskander (SS-26 Stone) mobile theater-level missiles, Moscow refuses to supply them because it does not want to upset the regional military balance and to sour relations with Israel and the United States. The Kremlin is also unlikely to agree this time, but Medvedev and al-Assad will undoubtedly discuss SAM contracts.

Another issue within the framework of military cooperation between the two countries is a small naval supply and maintenance base located in Syria's city of Tartus, which had accommodated Soviet warships in the 1980s. In the past 30 years, the base's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair, and Damascus is unable to finance its modernization. Russia is ready to invest in its expansion and thus create a full-fledged naval base for its ships. Russian-Syrian bilateral trade has almost doubled over the past five years, reaching $1 billion in 2009. Apart from the Russian military, oil and gas companies and other businesses are also interested in the Syrian market. A month ago, Russia's oil and gas company Tatneft and its Syrian partners started developing the South Kishma oilfield in the province of Deir ez-Zor.

In December 2009, Stroytransgaz, the oil and gas engineering and construction company, built and commissioned a large gas refinery near the city of Hims, located 160 km from Damascus. Naturally, Medvedev and al-Assad will prioritize economic and military cooperation issues. At the same time, Damascus would like to secure Russia's political backing. As has already been said, al-Assad's main objective is to enlist Moscow's political support on the issue of returning the strategic Golan Heights, a plateau 60 km long and 25 km wide, from which the Syrian capital can be clearly seen. The highest value is, however, attached to the main local resource, which is water, rather than land. It is here that Lake Kinneret is located, also known as the Sea of Tiberias, which is the main freshwater reservoir in Israel.

As part of an effort to return the Golan Heights, President al-Assad initiated indirect Turkish-mediated Syrian-Israeli talks two years ago, but they produced no results as the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which replaced the Ehud Olmert cabinet in 2009, steadfastly opposes the return of the Golan Heights. Against this backdrop, Al-Assad hopes that Russia, an active member of the Quartet on the Middle East, also comprising the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, will be able to reinstate the Israeli-Syrian track of the Arab-Israeli peace talks, even though possibly only through Ankara's mediation. Important in this context is that, in addition to Syria, President Medvedev also plans to visit Turkey on May 11-12, where he most likely will negotiate the Syrian issue with national leaders.

Russian and Syrian leaders are also likely to discuss the issue of convening a Moscow conference on the Middle East, in an attempt at bringing the conflicting parties, namely, Lebanon, Syria, possibly Iran, the Palestinian National Authority and Israel, to the negotiating table. In any case, given the tough confrontation between the Fatah and Hamas movements and in view of the current Israeli political climate, the Moscow conference can only be held in the long-term. Moscow will not agree to host a conference just for the sake of hosting a conference as it does not seem to be willing to make a fool of itself, as U.S. President George W. Bush did in Annapolis in 2007.

Source: http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20100510/158960321.html

Medvedev's Visit to Syria: Restoring Russia's Influence in the Middle East

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Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Syria on May 10-11 was the first by a Russian president; President Asad has already visited Russia three times (January 2005, December 2006, and August 2008). During the visit, agreements on aviation, scientific and information technology cooperation, tourism, and the environment were signed, as was a memorandum regarding cooperation between the two countries' chambers of commerce. The leaders discussed infrastructure projects in energy, and Middle East political affairs, such as the peace process, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, were also on the agenda. In addition, the parties agreed to establish a committee to promote expanded strategic cooperation. During his visit, Medvedev met with Hamas leader Khaled Mashal (whom he met in Moscow three months earlier) and even raised the issue of releasing Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Syria, which in the 1970s and 1980 was the USSR's main ally in the Middle East, cooled its relations with Russia after the dismantlement of the Soviet Union because of "its betrayal of the Arab cause." Relations were restored a few years later in an effort to form an anti-Western front in the Middle East with Russia's active participation, and subsequently thepolitical, economic, and security ties between the countries have grown closer. Especially in light of its current international isolation and the pressure from various rivals and enemies, Syria sees Russia as an important partner. For its part, Russia has expressed sweeping support of Syria and rejected any criticism regarding its nuclear program, activities in Lebanon, arming of Hizbollah, support for terrorist organizations, including Hamas, and cooperation with Iran.

Regarding security, the two nations began a new era with Asad's first visit to Moscow, when then-President Vladimir Putin canceled 73 percent ($9.8 billion) of Syria's debt to Russia for armaments supplied before the breakup of the USSR, in return for new weapons deals. Russia supplies Syria with Mig-29 fighter planes and aerial defense systems of an older generation. Although understandings regarding the supply of more advanced models, such as the Mig-E-31 jet, the S-300 surface-to-air missile, and the Askandar-2 surface-to-surface missile were reached, these weapons have not been supplied yet because of regional military balance considerations; this Russian policy is not likely to change soon. Inaddition , the Russian navy uses the Tartous port facilities, and Russia is even financing the port's renovation. On the nuclear question, Medvedev declared his support for a nuclear-free Middle East. Syria, however, has requested a civilian nuclear reactor for itself.

Russia's interest in enhancing cooperation with Syria is a function of its interest to promote its own status on the international arena. Medvedev's visit and Russia's demonstrative support for Syria stem from Russia's drive to become an influential actor such that only Russia would have the power to promote effective moves in the Middle East, as it would be the sole element maintaining a positive dialogue with all sides. Accordingly, Russia views itself as having a more concrete role in Middle Eastern matters than the Quartet's other members, and intends to conduct independent moves. The Syrian track presents a viable opportunity, and President Medvedev stated he intends to press the "reset" button on the peace process. Syria has a similar interest, which prompts it to strengthen Russia's status as an independent operator in the Middle East that in turn will upgrade Syria's own status in the region.

At any rate, this is the Russian motivation to call for a peace conference in Moscow. Russia intends to hold this conference in the near future (on condition the Palestinians reach some sort of internal concord; this was the purpose of the meeting with Mashal) and to seat, together with the Israelis and Palestinians, the Syrians, Lebanese, and possibly even the Iranians. The last meeting of the Quartet in Moscow was preceded by a string of visits by regional heads of state and Palestinian organization leaders (except for Asad himself who was honored by having Medvedev come to him instead). It seems that Syria would react favorably, and Asad has expressed support for a leading Russian role to mediate between Syria on one side and Israel and the United States on the other. Syria is apparently willing to replace Turkey with Russia as managing the Syrian track of the peace process. The Russians, apparently ready to assume a significant position as an independent player on the international arena, seem to be seriously considering accepting this new mediating role.

Syria's potential exit from the "axis of evil" could change the current political balance in the region; hence the pressure from the United States and other channels. From the Russian perspective, this dynamic state makes Syria a key player and helps explain Medvedev's visit to Damascus at this sensitive time. Indeed, the visit was used in part to demonstrate the range of supportive steps taken on behalf of Syria in the face of international pressure. As such, Russia is promoting three goals: demonstrating its own position of influence on the international arena in general and the Middle East in particular, promoting the peace process, which is an interest of its own; and further entrenching its influence over Syria. The Syrians are interested in balancing their international status and demonstrating to the United States their Russian support.

None of this activity has occurred in a vacuum; there is a Russian-American understanding allowing active Russian involvement in the Middle East to promote its goals in return for cooperation with the West on containing the Iranian nuclear program, fighting the war on international terrorism, and promoting the peace process. In this sense, it seems that Russia is promoting a goal similar to the American one. More simply, the Russian-American difference of opinion, if it in fact exists, apparently lies not so much in a difference over the nature of the peace process or the approach towards the axis of evil, rather in the competition between the two powers. This touches on the question of who will succeed in bringing whom to the negotiating table and earn bonus points as the leader of the peace process. Therefore, one may read Medvedev's visit to Damascus as a new stage in Russia's activity designed to upgrade its status in the Middle East in particular and in the international arena in general.

The joint statement issued at the end of the visit, while including criticism of Israeli settlement activity, spoke of the intention to renew the peace process on the basis of the UN resolutions, the Madrid principles, and the Arab initiative. Russia is indeed working hard to promote the process under its leadership (presented as an interim stage of the process) using its relative advantages, among them its status in Syria. This raises the probability of a conference on the Middle East taking place in Moscow, with Russia having a good chance of involving Syria in the process. This game on Russia's part has the potential of upgrading Russia's overallpolitical status in the Middle East and earning it points on the global scale. However, whether the Russian ambition will be fulfilled in practice remains an open question.


Russia Modernizing Syria Ports For its Warships

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Officials said the navies of Russia and Syria were enhancing cooperation over the last year. They said Moscow was modernizing naval facilities in Syria's port of Latakia and Tartous to accommodate Russian Navy warships. "I am certain that we will witness new and significant progress in our bilateral cooperation in the near future," Russian ambassador to Syria, Sergei Kirpichenko, said. On April 14, Kirpichenko welcomed the arrival of the Russian Navy's nuclear-powered missile cruiser, Pyotr Veliky, to Tartous, Middle East Newsline reported.

Russia has modernized Tartous and deploys 50 naval officers to maintain and supply warships that operate in the Mediterranean. "The Pyotr Veliky's visit to the Syrian port of Tartus is a symbolic event," Kirpichenko said. "It is a continuation of our historic ties with Syria that serves as a guarantee of our future cooperation not only in the naval sphere but also in other areas." Officials said a large Syrian Navy delegation visited Pyotr Veliky. Pyotr Veliky has been deemed the flagship of Russia's Northern Fleet and was headed for an exercise in the Indian Ocan. In September 2008, the Kremlin launched negotiations with the regime of President Bashar Assad to convert Tartous into a permanent Russian Navy base. Officials said Moscow also offered to modernize the Syrian Navy port at Latakia. Tartous was said to have been expanded to accommodate large Russian warships. Officials said Tartous, with three berthing floats, could handle up to a dozen naval vessels.

Officials said the Russian Navy regards Syria as a vital base for operations in the Mediterranean and surrounding regions. They said Moscow has been training the Syrian Navy as part of the strategic arrangement. "According to the Russian Navy, the naval base in Syria significantly boosts Russia's operational capability in the region because the warships based there are capable of reaching the Red Sea through the Suez Canal and the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar in a matter of days," the Moscow-based RIA Novosti news agency said.

Source: http://www.worldtribune.com/worldtribune/WTARC/2010/me_syria0315_04_15.asp

Russia: A Major Mediterranean Deployment

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Summary

A Russian battle group led by Moscow’s sole aircraft carrier is heading for the Mediterranean Sea. The sailing represents a significant demonstration, both military and political, by the Kremlin.

Analysis

The Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, is leading a battle group to the Mediterranean Sea. The move represents a major deployment for Russia’s Northern Fleet. Though the Russian navy suffers significant disadvantages in the sea, the deployment could ultimately prove to be the strongest naval showing in more than a decade for the Kremlin. On Dec. 11, the Kuznetsov reportedly began conducting flight operations close enough to Norwegian oil platforms to spook the operators into suspending their own flights to and from the rigs. Whether this was intended to frighten the Norwegians or was more a symptom of Russian inexperience with the basic etiquette of carrier aviation is unclear. Either way, it almost certainly indicates how this deployment will play out: This is a battle group, the presence of which will be felt. Once it rendezvous in the Mediterranean, the Russian battle group reportedly will be made up of four major warships, including the:
  • Admiral Kuznetsov. The lead ship of its class, the Kuznetsov displaces nearly 60,000 tons fully loaded — making it the largest warship ever constructed by Russia. Moscow has claimed significantly larger aircraft capacity than has been demonstrated. It can accommodate Su-33 Flanker D and Su-25 Frogfoot navalized fighter aircraft as well as Ka-27/29 Helix helicopters. Bristling with anti-air systems, it also is armed with 10 SS-N-19 “Shipwreck” supersonic anti-ship missiles. China acquired its sister ship, the Varyag.
  • Admiral Levchenko. A ship of the Udaloy (Project 1155) class, a mainstay of the Russian surface fleet, Levchenko possesses an extensive anti-submarine warfare suite, including the SS-N-14 “Silex” missile.
  • Admiral Chabanenko. The sole ship of the Udaloy II (Project 1155.1) class, the Chabanenko is an improvement on the Levchenko’s class. It incorporates aspects of two other late Soviet-era classes. It carries the SS-N-22 “Sunburn” supersonic anti-ship missile and is one of the most active ships in the Russian Northern Fleet.
  • Moskva. The flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva is the lead ship of the Slava (Project 1164) guided missile cruisers. Sixteen large SS-N-12 “Sandbox” anti-ship missiles are fitted in rows of two on the port and starboard sides, a distinctive feature.
A number of support vessels and almost certainly at least one nuclear-powered attack or cruise missile submarine accompany these ships. Despite the notable absence of the Pyotr Velikiy, this grouping of ships largely represents the best the Russian surface navy has to offer. On paper, it brings significant offensive anti-ship capability to bear. For the most part, however, Russian sailors are more likely to be honing rather than flaunting their skills on this deployment.

The greatest challenge for Russia in the Mediterranean is geographic. The sea route from Severodvinsk to the Strait of Gibraltar is actually longer than the transit from Norfolk, Va., — home of the U.S. 2nd Fleet — to the strait. And the entire Mediterranean Sea is within range of NATO aircraft. Despite the fact that several of these ships, especially the Kuznetsov, bristle with anti-air weaponry, they stand little chance against U.S. and NATO dominance of the Mediterranean.

This dynamic is not much altered by the presence of Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet. That fleet is bottled up behind the Bosporus and Dardanelles, the straits connecting the Black and Mediterranean seas, thus facing the Turkish navy at a disadvantage. Though even at the height of Soviet naval power Russia never has attained a particularly strong military position in the Mediterranean, this is a crucial political juncture for Moscow. Before the deployment concludes in February, calls at the Syrian ports of Tartus — where the Kuznetsov moored the last time it was in the Mediterranean in 1996 — or Latakia are likely.

This is potentially the strongest Russian naval move in more than a decade. While in a shooting war it would be a foolish play, Russia is making a strong political show of force at a time when its interests are on the line in both Kosovo and the Middle East. And people tend to notice when someone else’s aircraft carrier parks off their coast.

Source: http://www.stratfor.com/memberships/106968/analysis/russia_major_mediterranean_deployment


Russia Seeks Its Place in the Sun

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The declaration earlier this month by Admiral Vladimir Masorin, commander of the Russian navy, that Moscow intends to re-establish a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean is under close scrutiny from Washington to Tel Aviv. While more an aspiration than established fact, the move carries myriad, challenging implications, ranging from the US Sixth Fleet's regional monopoly on naval power to the security of trans-Caucasian and North African energy supply routes. Yet it is the prospect of Russia reactivating its cold war naval bases in Syria's Tartus and Latakia ports which could have the most dramatic impact. By raising Syria's stock in the region, analysts say such a move could further complicate western attempts to achieve settlements in Lebanon and Palestine. Defensive missile and surveillance systems around any Russian installations might also shift the military balance to Israel's disadvantage. A brief by Stratfor.com, a private US intelligence firm, said: "A Russian naval presence off the Syrian coast could allow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's regime to better inoculate itself against a potential attack by the US or Israel ... The Russians would be offering an attractive insurance policy."

The Russian Black Sea fleet's 720th Logistics Support Point at Tartus has been in disuse since 1991, when the Soviet Union imploded. Yet it remains the only Russian military base outside the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States territory. Last year Russia reportedly dredged Tartus and began building a new dock at Latakia. Kommersant newspaper said the plans were far from implementation. But as the Kiev Post noted, the Black Sea fleet's lease on its Sevastopol base is hostage to Ukraine's volatile relations with Moscow - and will in any case expire in 2017, necessitating a renegotiation or a move. Wary of Israel's possible reaction (and Russian domination), Syria denies any intention to host a new military presence. But in the double-dealing world of Middle East politics, such statements by a regime with long-standing political and commercial links to Russia are not taken at face value.

Syria could threaten a Russian go-ahead if its recent, limited cooperation with the US over Iraq fails to win concessions on Lebanon or guarantees that Washington will not pursue regime change. President Vladimir Putin, involved in a bare-chested global game of military and diplomatic one-upmanship with the US, may also be using the Syrian bases as pawns. They could equally be used to increase Russian leverage over the US-led peace process or to control Syria's future behavior, depending on where Moscow's perceived interests lie. Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie Endowment, says Moscow's pragmatic - and by implication, unprincipled - foreign policymakers are "looking for opportunities wherever they may be". That meant building influence in the Middle East in particular.

For this reason, said Pavel Baev, of Eurasia Daily Monitor, Mr Putin was hedging his bets while he waited to see how the twin crises with Iraq and Iran play out. One example: now that panicky Arab states are pursuing nuclear programs to match Iran's, Russia wants its share of the resulting business in the Gulf. Yet at the same time, Moscow is helping Iran complete its Bushehr nuclear facility. Mr Baev said Russia was manoeuvring to profit from an irresistible window of opportunity: the power shift that would follow a US defeat in Iraq. "In the envisaged no-holds-barred power play, Russia would not have any allies but could enjoy perfect freedom of manoeuvre and exploit the advantage of not being afraid of any oil crisis. "Declaring its adherence to pragmatism, Moscow is increasingly adopting anti-Americanism as its guiding political idea," he said. Toying with military bases in Syria was just part of a bigger, bolder bid to challenge US regional and global leadership.

Source: http://news.trendaz.com/index.shtml?...073609&lang=EN

In related news:

Syria in China’s New Silk Road Strategy


While the international community is fixated on Iran’s nuclear program, China has been steadily expanding its political, economic and strategic ties with Syria. Since Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited China in 2004 on the heels of the 2003 U.S. intervention in Iraq, there have been increased economic cooperation and more recently, a flurry of high-level exchanges on political and strategic issues. On April 5, while at the 7th Syrian International Oil and Gas Exhibition “SYROIL 2010” to attract local, Arab and foreign investors, Syrian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Sufian al-Allaw told the state-run Xinhua News Agency that he expects more contracts and cooperation with Chinese oil companies (Xinhua News Agency, April 5). This is in tandem with growing political and economic cooperation in the electricity, transport and telecommunications sectors dominated by Chinese enterprises such as CNPC, ZTE, Huawei and Haier (China’s largest white goods manufacturer) (Xinhua News Agency, March 31, 2008; The Syrian Report, May 11, 2009).

The Middle East was an important bridge between Asia and Europe along the ancient Silk Road and since 1991, China has been rebuilding the Silk Road through the construction of a network of highways, pipelines, and rail lines from China to re-link the countries of Central Asia and Europe along this historic corridor (Georgian Daily, January 27). Beijing's renewed interest in Damascus—the traditional terminus node of the ancient Silk Road—in spite of Syria’s current status as an international pariah, indicates that China sees Syria as an important trading hub and partner for Chinese interests in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Indeed, China dubs Damascus "ning jiu li," or "cohesive force," and Damascus is serving as a cohesive force as China’s Silk Road strategy converges with Syria’s "Look East" policy toward China (The Syrian Report, May 11, 2009; Gulf News, January 12).

China’s Perception of Syria and the Middle East

Syria is part and parcel of China’s broader Middle East strategy, which Jin Liangxiang, research fellow at Shanghai Institute for International Studie, argued is going through a new activism and that “the age of Chinese passivity in the Middle East is over” [1]. According to a 2004 interview with Ambassador Wu Jianmin [2], considered to be one of China’s most outstanding diplomats one who witnessed and contributed to the development of Chinese diplomacy, Chinese foreign policy was transforming from "responsive diplomacy" (Fanying shi waijiao) to "proactive diplomacy" (Zhudong shi waijiao) (China Youth Daily, Feb 18, 2004) [3].

Indeed, since the 2003 U.S. intervention in Iraq, China has become more active in prosecuting a “counter-encirclement strategy” against perceived U.S. hegemony in the Middle East [4]. Then Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen blasted U.S. foreign policy in a China Daily article that the United States has “put forward its ‘Big Middle East’ reform program … the U.S. case in Iraq has caused the Muslim world and Arab countries to believe that the super power already regards them as targets of its ambitious ‘democratic reform program’ (China Daily, November 1, 2004). Beijing fears that Washington’s Middle East strategy entails advancing the encirclement of China and creating a norm of regime change against undemocratic states, which implicitly challenges the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy at home. To counter that, China has increased economic and diplomatic ties with countries in the region, worked to establish a China-GCC free trade zone (Gulf News, March 28), established Sino-Arab Cooperation Forum (China Daily, January 30, 2004), and overall increased its footprint in the region. Jin Liangxiang declared that “if U.S. strategic calculations in the Middle East do not take Chinese interests into account, then they will not reflect reality” [5].

Syria as China’s foothold into the Mediterranean Union

Other than its geographic location as a terminus node on the ancient Silk Road, and hub for trade between the three continents of Africa, Asia and Europe, there are many reasons for China’s interest in Syria. First, it can serve as China’s gateway for European market access in the face of increasing protectionist pressures from larger countries such as France, Germany and Great Britain within the European Union (EU). As such, China has launched a strategy of investing in small countries and territories poised to join the EU in the Balkans or the Levant that forms the Mediterranean Union, which was initiated by the 1995 Barcelona Process to create a free trade zone between EU and countries in North Africa and the Middle East along the Mediterranean Coast. For example, Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping in October 2009 called on larger Balkan countries that were already EU members, such as Hungary, Bulgara and Romania, to serve as links to smaller Balkan countries that have yet to join the EU (See "Xi’s European Tour: China’s Central-Eastern European Strategy Reaches for New Heights," China Brief, October 7, 2009). Syria is close to the EU and Mediterranean, but has yet to sign an agreement with the Mediterranean Union [6].

China’s strategy in Syria as a beachhead into the EU market is similar to its strategy toward the Balkans. In recent years small countries in the Balkans such as Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Moldova and so on have seen an increase in Chinese investment in infrastructure projects and generous loans (World Security Network, March 8). Some European analysts such as Dusan Reljic from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) have described the Chinese arrival in the Balkans as an effort to get into Europe through its backdoor. Reljic says that a direct route to greater EU presence is more costly for China than investing in territories poised to join the EU within 10 to 15 years. "It’s cheaper to buy assets there than within the European Union," he said (Deutsche Welle, March 4). Similarly, with Syria poised to sign the Association Agreement with the Mediterranean Union, China’s investment in Syria would eventually gain a beachhead and foothold into the EU market via the Mediterranean Union (Global Arab Network, October 16, 2009) [7].

Syria as a trading hub for China’s interests in Africa, Middle East and Europe

Second, Syria’s proximity to a large trading bloc of the EU and some of the fastest growing economies in the world in Africa, the Middle East and Asia would enhance its role as a trading hub via the "neighborhood effect," whereby factories will be placed in locations closer to both suppliers and consumers of products. Thus, Syria as a node on the Silk Road can be reborn as a regional outsourcing distribution center poised to take advantage of positive externalities of this neighborhood effect. Syria is already on track to slowly reforming its economy; it is self-sufficient in energy with a power grid linked to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey; and it is taking steps to privatize the banking system and planning to set up a Damascus stock exchange. China thus is establishing first mover advantages to secure competitive pricing in a country that is methodically taking steps to reform its economy (Forward Magazine, January 26, 2009). Indeed, China is already using Damascus as a springboard to the region, with "China City" in Adra Free Zone industrial park located 25 km north east of Damascus on the Damascus-Baghdad highway, established by entrepreneurs from the wealthy Chinese coastal province of Zhejiang, to sell Chinese goods and as a major trans-shipment hub onto Iraq, Lebanon and the wider region (Forbes, May 21, 2009) [8]. China City is especially popular among visiting officials from Iraq, where China is currently the biggest oil and gas investor (Middle East Information, March 17; Aswat al-Iraq, April 1; Business Insider, February 2).

Syria as a key node for China’s Iron Silk Road

Third, China is interested in building a Eurasian railway network connecting Central Asia through the Middle East and onto Europe (Railway Insider, March 11; The Transport Politic, March 9). Under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China is already negotiating to change Kyrgyzstan’s soviet tracks of 1,520 mm to the international standard of 1,435 mm in order to connect with Turkish and Iranian railway systems (Georgian Daily, January 27). The network would eventually carry passengers from London to Beijing and then to Singapore and run to India and Pakistan, according to Wang Mengshu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a senior consultant on China’s domestic high-speed rail project (Daily Telegraph, March 8). There will be three main routes, with one connecting to Southeast Asia as far as Singapore, the second one from Urumqi in Xinjiang Province through Central Asian countries onto Germany, and the third from Heilongjiang in northern China with Eastern and South Eastern European countries via Russia (Xinhua News Agency, March 12). Wang said China is already negotiating with 17 countries over the rail lines, and is in the middle of a domestic expansion project to build nearly 19,000 miles of new railways in the next five years to connect major cities with high-speed lines [9].

Syria in December 2009 began discussing railway cooperation with Italian State Railway (Italferr) in Damascus, in order to upgrade the Damascus-Aleppo line as part of a network connecting Turkey toward Europe, and Jordan toward Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, said Syrian Minister of Transport Yarob Bader (European Business Centre (SEBC) Syria, December 6, 2009). Syria also wants to build railways from the coastal city of Tartous to Umm Qasr port in southern Iraq, and use its Mediterranean port to build trade routes between Iraq and Europe (The Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2009). This bodes well for China’s energy holdings in Iraq—where it is building a big presence—as China and Syria already held discussions on building a natural gas pipeline from Iraq’s western Akhas fields to Syria, which could be an attractive transit point for gas-starved Arab and European markets (The Wall Street Journal, April 1).

Syria’s ‘Look East’ Policy toward China

Similarly, China is of great strategic value to Syria during a time when the West is trying to isolate it. When the doors to Europe and the United States were closed to Damascus in 2005 following allegations of Syrian involvement in Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s assassination, foreign policy chiefs decided to look East to replace the vacuum of the West. Buthaina Shaaban, the current presidential adviser on media affairs, penned an article then outlining this approach: "Perhaps the time has come to bring the Arabs, from a state of complete submission to the hostile West, towards [sic] the East and countries that share with us values, interests and orientation." She added, "What did we get from the West, to which the Arabs affiliated themselves for the entire past century, except for occupation, hatred and war?" (Gulf News, January 12).

Conclusion

Syria is proving to be an important Ning Jiu Li node on China’s Silk Road. With China’s new activism and its aspirations to eventually join the Middle East Quartet in shaping the Arab-Israeli peace process (Xinhua News Agency, December 16, 2006), Syria is emerging as a key partner in China’s broader Silk Road Strategy for “peaceful and harmonious development” in the Mediterranean region. Indeed, Henry Kissinger proclaimed that in the Middle East, there is “no war without Egypt, no peace without Syria.” As China becomes more engaged in the Middle East region and Syria is "looking east" to what it perceives may be a new Pax Sinica, the international community needs to pay heed to this burgeoning partnership and begin to factor in China as an important player in the greater Middle East and Mediterranean geopolitical landscape.

Source: http://www.jamestown.org

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Dear reader,

Arevordi will be taking a sabbatical to tend to personal matters. New blog commentaries will henceforth be posted on an irregular basis. The comments board however will continue to be moderated on a regular basis.

The last 20 years or so has also helped me see Russia as the last front against scourges of Westernization, Globalism, American expansionism, Zionism, Islamic extremism and pan-Turkism. I have also come to see Russia as the last hope humanity has for the preservation of classical western civilization, Apostolic Christianity and the traditional nation-state. This compelled me to create this blog in 2010. Immediately, this blog became one of the very few voices in the vastness of cyberia that dared to preach about the dangers of Globalism and the Anglo-American-Jewish alliance, and the only voice preaching the strategic importance of Armenia remaining within Russia's orbit. From about 2010 to 2015 I did monthly, at times weekly, commentaries about Russian-Armenian relations and Eurasian geopolitics in general. It was very difficult for me because I had no assistance from anywhere. The time I put into this blog therefore came at the expense of work and family. But a powerful feeling inside urged me to keep going; and I did. When Armenia joined the EEU and integrated into Russia's military structures a couple of years ago I finally felt a deep sense of relaxation, as if a very heavy burden was lifted off my back. And when Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan reemerged in Armenian politics, I finally felt that my personal mission was accomplished. I therefore felt I could take a step back as I really needed the rest.

Simply put: I have lived to see the institutionalization of Russian-Armenian alliance. Also, I feel more confident now that Armenians are collectively recognizing the strategic importance of Armenia's ties with Russia. Moreover, I feel satisfied knowing that, at least on a subatomic level, I had a hand in the outcome. As a result, I feel a strong sense of mission accomplished. I therefore no longer have the internal urge to continue as in the past. In other words, the motivational force that had propelled me in previous years has been gradually dissipating because I feel that this blog has lived to see the realization of its stated goal.

Going forward, I do not want to write merely for the sake of writing. Also, I do not want to say anything if I have nothing important to say. I feel like I have said everything I needed to say. Henceforth, I will post seasonal commentaries about topics I find important. I will however moderate the blog's comments section on a regular basis; ultimately because I'm interested in what readers of this blog have to say and also because it's through readers here that I am at times made aware of interesting developments. To limit clutter in the comments section, I kindly ask all participants of this blog to please keep comments coherent and strictly relevant to the featured topic of discussion. Moreover, please realize that when there are several anonymous visitors posting comments simultaneously, it becomes very confusing (not to mention extremely annoying) trying to figure out who is who and who said what. If you are here to engage in conversation, make an observation, express an idea or just attack me, I ask you to at least use a moniker to identify yourself.

Please appreciate the fact that I have put an enormous amount of information into this blog. In my opinion, most of my blog commentaries and articles, going back ten-plus years, are in varying degrees relevant to this day and will remain so for a long time to come. Posts in this blog can therefore be revisited by longtime readers and new comers alike. I therefore ask the reader to treat this blog as a depository of important information relating to Eurasian geopolitics. Russian-Armenian relations and humanity's historic fight against Globalism and Westernization.

Thank you for reading.