Moscow is not concealing its strong desire to play a greater political role in the Middle East and to have a greater naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Establishing a naval presence in strategic seaports throughout the world is more-or-less a prerequisite for any aspiring global superpower. The socioeconomic turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union forced Moscow to abandon its strategic naval bases in Cuba and Vietnam. Despite the chaos of the post Soviet years, however, Moscow continued to keep a presence, albeit a small one, in Syria's second largest port city of Tartus. It is becoming increasingly clear now that Moscow is interested in increasing its military presence in Syria and this may actually explain why Syria has not had its sovereignty grossly violated by the Anglo-American-Zionist alliance - yet. I am pretty sure Moscow's regional desires are being noted by Western powers. It's hard to imagine the West will willingly accept renewed Russian influence in a region that has long been the playground for Western interests. Moreover, in an interesting turn of affairs, after spending years kissing Washington's ass and feet in hopes of receiving modern weaponry, Lebanese officials have finally come to their senses and traveled north recently to meet with the Russian Bear. The following news articles are pertaining to these recent developments. The article posted at the bottom of this page was taken from the Jerusalem Post several years ago. The article in question refers to an interesting incident that is said to have taken place between Russia and Israel in 1996.
Kremlin Says Eyeing New Naval Bases Abroad
Expanding Russian Naval Influence (Stratfor video): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yz7X3uKd6d8
Syrian and Russian naval forces at the Syrian port of Tartous (RT video): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvGVZXZ8Onk
President Dmitry Medvedev said on Thursday Russia was looking to open new naval bases abroad to increase the global reach of a military that shrunk abruptly when the Soviet Union collapsed. Soviet forces drew on over a dozen naval bases in Europe, South America, Africa and South East Asia in the 1970s and 1980s; but post-Soviet economic crisis, fuel shortages and a rundown of the military confined forces largely to home bases. Vladimir Putin began rebuilding military power after he assumed the Russian presidency in 2000. Last year, state news agency Itar-Tass cited military sources saying Russia had decided to establish naval bases in Libya and Yemen and expand facilities at the Syrian port of Tartus. Asked during a televised meeting with senior military officers whether Russia was planning to set up new foreign bases, Medvedev said: "I would make no secret of the fact that we have certain ideas on this theme." "But I would not name them aloud, for obvious reasons."
Moscow shut down its overseas bases in Cuba and Vietnam in 2002, leaving just two naval footholds abroad: a major Black Sea base at Sevastopol, Ukraine, and facilities in Tartus on Syria's Mediterranean coast. In January, Russia said it would modernize its facilities in Tartus by 2011, and in April agreed to cut the price it charges Ukraine for gas by 30 percent in exchange for a 25-year extension of its lease of the Sevastopol base. Medvedev said that the final decision on new naval bases would obviously depend on Russia's partners. "As you may realize, bases in foreign states cannot be set up by a decree of the Russian president," he said during the meeting in Nizhny Novgorod, 400 km (248 miles) north-east of Moscow. "We need to do complicated political and diplomatic work... so that (our bases) are seen by (other countries) as a reinforcement of their own image, their own security," he said. In recent years the Kremlin has revived several Cold War era practices to demonstrate the reach of its military. In 2008 Russian war ships sailed into Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua in what was read by many as a snub to the United States. Russia's long-range aviation has also undertaken a series of sorties along the borders of NATO states, irritating the country's Cold War era foes.
Russian Navy to base warships at Syrian port after 2012
Russia's naval supply and maintenance site near Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus will be modernized to accommodate heavy warships after 2012, the Russian Navy chief said on Monday. "Tartus will be developed as a naval base. The first stage of development and modernization will be completed in 2012," Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky said, adding it could then serve as a base for guided-missile cruisers and even aircraft carriers. The Soviet-era facility is operated under a 1971 agreement by Russian personnel. Since 1992 the port has been in disrepair, with only one of its three floating piers operational. According to Navy experts, the facility is being renovated to serve as a foothold for a permanent Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in November 2009 Russia would increase its naval presence in the world's oceans. Moscow announced in 2007 that its Navy had resumed and would build up a constant presence throughout the world's oceans. Once one the world's most powerful forces, the Russian Navy now has few ships regularly deployed on the open seas.
Russia Seeks Its Place in the Sun
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.
Medvedev says Russia to step up navy presence in world's oceans
Russia plans to increase its naval presence in the world's oceans, President Dmitry Medvedev said on board a Russian warship during an official visit to Singapore on Monday. Russia announced in 2007 that its Navy had resumed and would build up a constant presence throughout the world's oceans. Once one the world's most powerful forces, the Russian Navy now has few ships regularly deployed on the open seas. Asked by the crew of the Varyag cruiser if Russia's presence would be stepped up further, Medvedev said: "Yes, this is planned."
Moscow has recently contributed warships to international efforts to combat Somali pirates. A flotilla of Russian warships also participated in exercises with India and Venezuela last year. Last year's tour of the Mediterranean, Caribbean, South Atlantic and the Indian Oceans by a flotilla led by the heavy missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great) was lauded by many in Russia as the country's naval reappearance on a global scale and criticized in the West as echoing the Cold War-era. After making several port calls and engaging in antipiracy operations off Somalia, the Pyotr Veliky arrived in Venezuela in late November, which coincided with Medvedev's state visit to the Latin American state. The president visited the ship along with his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez.
In September 2008, Russia was reported to be in talks with Syria on turning the Tartus port into a permanent Middle East base for Russian warships. Medvedev said Russia needs an effective navy to be able to send ships to take part in international missions. "Our objective at the moment is to invest more considerable funds in the Navy. Decisions have been made, warships will be purchased under a state armaments program, certain steps will be made next year," Medvedev said. He also said the current economic slump would have an insignificant effect on arms purchases for the Army and Navy.
Russia will provide the Lebanese army with free helicopters, tanks and munitions in a deal that will boost the country's poorly equipped military, officials said Tuesday. The announcement comes at a time when military assistance to Lebanon is under scrutiny after U.S. lawmakers demanded assurances that American aid will not fall into the hands of Hezbollah. Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri said the Russian aid includes six helicopters, 31 tanks, 130 mm caliber cannon shells and about half a million different munitions for medium sized weapons and artillery shells. The statement, which followed Hariri's talks in Moscow with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, did not say when the aid would be delivered.
Lebanon's 60,000-strong military has long been poorly equipped and has virtually no air force - except for about 30 unarmed helicopters and several 1950s-era British-made Hawker Hunter jets - and no effective air defense system. Archenemy Israel routinely flies reconnaissance missions over Lebanon unchallenged. The news about the Russian aid came just days after two key members of the U.S. Congress released their holds on $100 million in U.S. military aid to the Lebanese army. The lawmakers suspended the aid on Aug. 2 amid growing concern in Congress that American-supplied weapons could threaten Israel and that Hezbollah may have influence over the army. A day later, Lebanese soldiers opened fire on Israeli troops in a firefight that lawmakers said only reinforced their concerns. Two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and a senior Israeli officer were killed.
Republican congressmen Howard Berman and Nita Lowey said they decided to free up the money after the Obama administration had given them assurances in classified briefings that the aid bolsters both Lebanese and U.S. national security and would not be hijacked by Hezbollah militants to threaten Israel. U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday the U.S. will be now working "aggressively with the government of Lebanon to obligate our programs with that country for this year." "Now that holds have been lifted, we have the ability now to move forward and we'll do so very rapidly," he said. Lebanon is not entirely dependent on U.S. military assistance, and has turned to Russia and Arab governments for assistance in the past.
Russia not interfering in Lebanon's domestic policy - Medvedev
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has reiterated that Russia will not interfere in Lebanon's internal affairs, his aide said on Tuesday. "Medvedev has emphasized that all thorny issues on the Lebanese national agenda should be solved without any interference from outside," Sergei Prikhodko told RIA Novosti. The president has pledged support for a UN-backed tribunal investigating the killing of Rafik Hariri, the father of Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Prikhodko said. Medvedev and Hariri pledged to build up Russia-Lebanon relations during talks in the Russian president's Gorki residence outside Moscow, he said. The two leaders also discussed Middle East peace efforts, Prikhodko said.
Russian weapons shifting balance of forces in Middle East – Israel's MI chief
Military cooperation between Moscow and Damascus is shifting the balance of forces in the Middle East "back to the '70's," when Israel was close to being defeated by Syria, outgoing chief of Israel's military intelligence said. Israeli media quote Maj.-Gen.Amos Yadlin as saying at a closed session of the parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Russia was providing Syria with portable, state-of-the-art anti-aircraft systems. "These are fairly inexpensive missiles compared to the S-300 but they are no less lethal or effective," the Ynet News portal quoted the official as saying. Russian specialists are involved in upgrading old Syrian weapons systems, Yadlin added.
"Syria is engaged in a very intense campaign to procure highly advanced weapons; so advanced in fact that anything that comes off the Russian assembly lines ends up in Syria," he said on Tuesday at his last meeting with lawmakers before retirement. The official also warned that Hezbollah could easily get all the most advanced weapons systems possessed by Syria simply by asking for them. "If it wanted to, Hezbollah could take over Lebanon in a matter of hours. This is not very likely but there is no military force that can stand up to Hezbollah in Lebanon," he said.
According to the official, a new conflict, if emerges, is likely to be far deadlier than Israel's last two military conflicts – the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon and the offensive on Gaza in late 2008 – early 2009. "The next round won't be focused on one theater but rather, will incorporate two or three," he said. "One cannot predict the future according to what happened during Operation Cast Lead or the Second Lebanon War. It will be much bigger, much wider in scope, and with many more casualties." Israel's enemies "believe that the only way to overcome Israel's deterrence is through long-range missile fire and improving air defense capabilities," the Jerusalem Post quoted Yadlin as saying.
Yakhont missiles could protect Russian naval base in Syria - analyst
Russian-made mobile anti-ship missile systems sold to Syria could be used to protect a Russian naval supply and maintenance site near Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus, a Russian arms trade expert said on Monday. Russia earlier announced it would honor a 2007 contract on the delivery of several Bastion anti-ship missile systems armed with SS-N-26 Yakhont supersonic cruise missiles to Syria, despite U.S. and Israel security concerns. Syria needs to shield a 600-km stretch of its coastline from potential amphibious assaults. "One of the purposes of the deployment of Bastion missile systems in Syria is to ensure the protection of the Russian naval site in Tartus," said Igor Korotchenko, head of a Moscow-based think tank on the international arms trade. The Yakhont missile has a range of 300 kilometers, the capacity to carry a 200-kilogram warhead and the unique ability of being able to cruise several meters above the water surface, making it difficult to detect and intercept. According to Korotchenko, none of the world's existing warships could thwart a Yakhont missile attack. The Soviet-era naval maintenance site near Tartus is Russia's only military foothold in the Mediterranean. Russia plans to modernize the facility to accommodate large warships, including missile cruisers and even aircraft carriers after 2012.
Russia to honor deal to sell P-800 anti-ship missiles to Syria
Russia will honor the contract to sell the P-800 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said. "It is the 2007 contract. The issue of selling the missiles to Syria was raised during the talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates... Undoubtedly, it [the contract] would be fulfilled by the Russian side," the Russian minister said. Israeli media said in late August that the country was working to thwart Syria's plans to get the highly accurate missiles, which Israel considers a threat to its navy vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. Kremlin aide Sergei Prikhodko dismissed the media reports. The P-800 Yakhont missiles (known as P-800 Oniks in Russia) have a range of 300 kilometers, carry a 200-kilogram warhead and feature a unique ability to cruise several meters above the surface, making it difficult to detect and intercept them.
Israel blames Russian rocket launchers for its setbacks in Lebanon
Hizballah Fighters Using Russian Weaponry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7s5lnjXR5s
Hizbullah has, reportedly, already destroyed at least one armor division out of a total of seven that the IDF relies upon. These losses have jeopardized Israel’s blitzkrieg strategy and have lead the latter to limit its ground campaign to the pace of infantrymen. The Lebanese Resistance uses upscale Russian anti-tank rocket launchers that not only punch holes through Israeli Merkava, but also through US-made tanks. Viktor Litovkin analyses the growing argument between Tel-Aviv and Moscow. Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Hezbollah was using modern anti-tank weapons of Russian make, specifically the RPG-29 Vampirs with a tandem warhead. Such statements have perplexed Russian arms experts, but they agreed to talk with me if I did not mention their names. "As usually happens in war, either side can interpret our words in its favor, and we don’t want that. We are neutral, and do not want to be accused of bias," one of them said.
The main point they made is this: the fact that Hezbollah militants are armed with RPG-29 handheld anti-tank grenade launchers does not mean that they received them from Syria, which acquired them in the course of military-technical cooperation with Moscow. A suspicion is not a fact. Facts must be proved by documented evidence, but there is none. The fragments of projectiles and the tailpiece, which the Israelis have sent to us, do not provide any evidence of anything. They do indeed bear the letters of the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet, but this is not enough for a complete examination. We have to look at the serial numbers of the weapons in order to determine where they were made, who sold them, and to whom. The experts explained that the RPG-29 Vampir with a tandem HEAT (high explosive anti-tank) PG-29V warhead was developed in the late 1980s when tanks acquired reactive armor. The Soviet army received them in 1989. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, these grenade launchers and their projectiles could be found in almost all the newly independent ex-communist nations. They were even produced in some of them. Trying to establish whose grenades are hitting Israeli tanks will be pure guesswork.
If a contract on arms supplies is official, or "white", it always mentions the end user. But apart from white contracts there are semi-official, or "grey", exports, and even "black", which are unofficial and illegal. Anyone from any country could sell RPG-29s to the Middle East, the Palestinians, Hezbollah, Hamas, or any other armed group. Elaborate set-ups could be used to do so. The experts did not name countries or companies, acting according to the innocent-until-proven-guilty principle, but many have already been proven guilty. Trials of illegal arms merchants have long ceased being a sensation. If senior officials have suspicions, or even make public accusations, they should back their statements with documents. Without facts this is idle talk and even political scheming.
The Russian-made RPG-29 anti-tank rocket launcher
The military experts observed that talk of "wrongful use of Russian weapons" starts whenever one of the sides has setbacks at the front lines. This is what the Americans did in Vietnam, and this is what they are doing in Iraq more than twenty years later, when they blame Russia for the fact that the militants are fighting with Russian arms. What other arms could they have if Iraqi leaders were getting them officially from the Soviet Union for almost 30 years? Now Israeli officials have followed suit. The experts said that in accusing Russia of indirect support for the other side, politicians fail to realize that they admit their helplessness and discredit their own weapons and combat hardware. The Merkava tank has always been considered invincible in Israel. The Israelis were proud of its design and its upgraded reactive armor. They claimed it was the best tank in the world. Tactically, the Israeli army has used it very skillfully in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Merkavas entered rural districts only when they were supported by helicopters, and had direct and stable communication with them.
But, apparently, there are not enough helicopters for tank support on Lebanese territory. The crew of any tank can see very little. They do not know what is happening on the sides or in the back. It is an easy target for any militant, who can hide in the bushes or behind a jamb. He does not need to attack a Merkava from the front, where it does indeed have excellent protection. He can hit it from the side, the rear, or the space between the running gear — any tank has many vulnerable spots. Perfect weapons simply do not exist. So why complain about a Russian grenade launcher? The experts thanked the Israeli ministers for the free promotion of Russian weapons, but repeated they had nothing to do with this. They observed that Israeli tanks were hit in Lebanon, not in Israel.
Members of Hezbollah, no matter what emotions they may evoke, are mostly citizens of Lebanon, and have a lawful right to defend their land against the aggressor. At this point the experts said that they were reluctant to go into politics. They switched back to weapons, and added that Israel was not only using its own weapons. The Merkava is an Israeli tank, but the M-113A1/A2 and M-577A2, on which Israeli soldiers drive into Lebanon, are of American make. The same applies to the following helicopters: the AH-1E/Bell-209, Chechnya-53D Stallion, UH-60 Blackhawk, S-70A, and assault AH-64 Apache. All their artillery — the AMRAAM, AIM-120B, AIM-95, and even the MLRS 227 multiple-launch rocket systems — were also made in the United States, not to mention assault aircraft, bombers, and fighters. The experts asked rhetorically: "Why blame anyone, if you are bombing a foreign country with foreign weapons?"
I did not argue with them. As a journalist, I merely try to familiarize readers with an opinion, which is different from what some Israeli leaders do regarding the "participation" of Russia and its weapons in the bloody conflict in the Middle East.
U.S. Strains to Stop Arms Flow
Just a week after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria assured a top State Department official that his government was not sending sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, the Obama administration lodged a confidential protest accusing Syria of doing precisely what it had denied doing. “In our meetings last week it was stated that Syria is not transferring any ‘new’ missiles to Lebanese Hizballah,” noted a cable sent by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in February, using an alternative spelling for the militant group. “We are aware, however, of current Syrian efforts to supply Hizballah with ballistic missiles. I must stress that this activity is of deep concern to my government, and we strongly caution you against such a serious escalation.”
A senior Syrian Foreign Ministry official, a cable from the American Embassy in Damascus reported, flatly denied the allegation. But nine months later, administration officials assert, the flow of arms had continued to Hezbollah. According to a Pentagon official, Hezbollah’s arsenal now includes up to 50,000 rockets and missiles, including some 40 to 50 Fateh-110 missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and most of Israel, and 10 Scud-D missiles. The newly fortified Hezbollah has raised fears that any future conflict with Israel could erupt into a full-scale regional war.
The Syrian episode offers a glimpse of the United States’ efforts to prevent buildups of arms — including Scud missiles, Soviet-era tanks and antiaircraft weapons — in some of the world’s tensest regions. Wielding surveillance photos and sales contracts, American diplomats have confronted foreign governments about shadowy front companies, secretive banks and shippers around the globe, according to secret State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to several news organizations.
American officials have tried to block a Serbian black marketer from selling sniper rifles to Yemen. They have sought to disrupt the sale of Chinese missile technology to Pakistan, the cables show, and questioned Indian officials about chemical industry exports that could be used to make poison gas. But while American officials can claim some successes — Russia appears to have deferred delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Iran — the diplomats’ dispatches underscore how often their efforts have been frustrated in trying to choke off trade by Syria and others, including Iran and North Korea.
The United States is the world’s largest arms supplier, and with Russia, dominates trade in the developing world. Its role as a purveyor of weapons to certain allies — including Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states — has drawn criticism that it has fueled an arms race. But it has also taken on a leading role as traffic cop in trying to halt deliveries of advanced weapons and other arms to militants and adversaries. According to the cables, American diplomats have repeatedly expressed concern that huge cargo planes operated by Badr Airlines of Sudan were flying weapons from Tehran to Khartoum, Sudan, where they were shipped to Hamas, the militant group in Gaza. Sudan insisted that the cargo was farm equipment, but the United States asked countries in the region to deny overflight rights to the airlines. Jordan and several other countries agreed, but Yemen declined, a February 2009 cable reported.
Egyptian officials, who view Iran with deep wariness, privately issued a threat. Omar Suleiman, the chief of Egypt’s intelligence service, told Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that Iran not only was providing $25 million a month to support Hamas but also was linked to a Hezbollah cell trying to smuggle arms from Gaza into Egypt, according to an April 2009 cable. “Egypt had sent a clear message to Iran that if they interfere in Egypt, Egypt will interfere in Iran,” noted the cable, adding that the Egyptian official said his country had trained agents for that purpose.
North Korea has abetted the arms race in the Middle East by providing missile technology to Iran and Syria, which then backed Hamas and Hezbollah, according to American intelligence officials and a cable from Mrs. Clinton. The cables tell something of an international detective story: how North Korea’s arms industry has conducted many of its transactions through the Korea Mining and Development Corporation, relied on suppliers of machinery and steel from countries including Switzerland, Japan, China and Taiwan, passed money through Chinese and Hong Kong banks and sold weapons to other countries.
To disrupt the transactions, American officials have prodded and protested. Diplomats raised questions in the spring of 2009, for example, about planned purchases from North Korea of rocket launchers by Sri Lanka and Scud missile launchers by Yemen. In July 2009, Stuart A. Levey, a senior United States Treasury official, warned a top official of the People’s Bank of China that “Chinese banks have been targeted by North Korea as the main access point into the international financial system,” according to one cable. And in meetings in Hong Kong that month, Mr. Levey complained that a local businessman was helping procure luxury goods for the North Korean leadership. (The Hong Kong banks later suggested that it had shut down the man’s accounts.)
It is the arms transactions involving Syria and Hezbollah, however, that appear to be among the Obama administration’s gravest concerns. President Obama came into office pledging to engage with Syria, arguing that the Bush administration’s efforts to isolate Syria had done nothing to wean it from Iran or encourage Middle East peace efforts. Even before American diplomats began talks with the Assad government, Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, prodded Mr. Assad in a February 2009 meeting in Damascus to make a gesture that he could take back to the Obama administration as “an indicator of Assad’s good will.” Mr. Kerry told Mr. Assad that Mr. Obama intended to withdraw American troops from Iraq “as soon as possible” and also hinted to a senior Syrian official that the Obama administration intended to take a firm line against the establishment of new Israeli settlements on the West Bank. “It is not our goal for the United States to be humiliated,” Mr. Assad said, referring to Iraq, according to a cable. In March 2009, a delegation of State Department and National Security Council officials traveled to Damascus for the first discussions, and in the next several months, each side made some modest gestures.
The United States provided information “regarding a potential threat to a Syrian official” through Syria’s Washington ambassador and allowed a senior aide to George J. Mitchell, the American Middle East negotiator, to attend a Syrian holiday event at the Syrian Embassy, a cable reported. Syria, for its part, allowed the Americans to reopen an English-language school and hosted a team of American military officials to discuss how to better regulate the Syria-Iraq border.
Each side, however, wanted the other to take the first major initiative. Syria kept pressing for the lifting of economic sanctions, which had crippled its aviation industry, and the Americans urged Syria to curtail its support for Hezbollah and Hamas. “The U.S. had publicly recognized its mistakes, e.g. use of torture methods, and would continue to take steps,” Daniel B. Shapiro, a senior official on the National Security Council told the Syrians in the meeting, according to a May 2009 cable. “But others needed to reciprocate to ensure that the opportunity did not pass.”
By the fall, however, officials at the American Embassy in Damascus appeared concerned that military developments were outpacing the incremental diplomacy. “Syria’s determined support of Hizballah’s military build-up, particularly the steady supply of longer-range rockets and the introduction of guided missiles could change the military balance and produce a scenario significantly more destructive than the July-August 2006 war,” said a November 2009 cable from the American chargé d’affaires in Damascus. According to cables, Syrian leaders appeared to believe that the weapons shipments increased their political leverage with the Israelis. But they made Lebanon even more of a tinderbox and increased the prospect that a future conflict might include Syria.
A major worry was that Syria or Iran had provided Hezbollah with Fateh-110 missiles, with the range to strike Tel Aviv. (A United States government official said last week that the 40 to 50 missiles were viewed as especially threatening because they are highly accurate.) Israeli officials told American officials in November 2009 that if war broke out, they assumed that Hezbollah would try to launch 400 to 600 rockets at day and sustain the attacks for at least two months, the cables note. In February, the White House announced that a new American ambassador would be sent to Syria after a five-year hiatus. The next day, William J. Burns, a State Department under secretary, met with the Syrian leader. During the session, Mr. Burns repeated American concerns about weapons smuggling to Hezbollah, one dispatch noted. Mr. Assad replied that while he could not be Israel’s policeman, no “new” weapons were being sent to Hezbollah.
Soon after the meeting, though, a cable noted that the Americans received intelligence reports that the Syrians were about to provide Hezbollah with Scud-D missiles, which are based on North Korean technology. (Some recent intelligence reports conclude that the group has about 10 such missiles stored in a Syrian warehouse that Hezbollah uses, according to American officials. The Defense Intelligence Agency believes that two have probably been moved to Lebanon, according to the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity.) The United States officials also worried about Hezbollah’s vow to avenge the death of Imad Mughniyah, a senior fighter killed in a 2008 car bombing the militant group said was the work of the Israelis.
In a classified cable in February, Mrs. Clinton directed the embassy to deliver a warning to Faisal al-Miqdad, the deputy foreign minister. “I know you are a strategic thinker, which is why I want to underscore for you that, from our perspective, your operational support for Hizballah is a strategic miscalculation that is damaging your long-term national interests.”
The Syrian official’s response was dismissive, according to an American cable. He denied that any weapons had been sent, argued that Hezbollah would not take military action if not provoked and expressed surprise at the stern American protest. The complaint, he said, “shows the U.S. has not come to a mature position (that would enable it) to differentiate between its own interests and Israel’s.”
Related news from the past:
Analysis: Russia uses Syrian port to demonstrate its power in the Med
Russia is expanding its military presence in Syria, developing an advanced naval port at Tartus and providing Syria with sophisticated missile technology. The story of Russia's return to Tartus, Syria's second most important port after Latakia, broke a year ago. It is Moscow's only foreign naval outpost situated outside the former Soviet Union. In June 2006 Russian media reported that Moscow had begun dredging at Tartus with a possible eye to turning what was largely a logistical base into a full-fledged station for its Black Sea Fleet, soon to be redeployed from the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. But Tartus is much more than just a new home for the fleet; it allows projection of Russian power into the entire eastern Mediterranean, and, by extension, a flexing of military might before Israel and the West.
Russian sources said the country's military planned to form a squadron to operate in the Mediterranean within three years, built around the Moskva missile cruiser. In addition, several respected Russian newspapers have reported that Moscow planned to deploy an S-300PMU-2 Favorit air-defense system to protect the base, with the system being operated by Russian servicemen rather than by Syrian forces. According to these reports, the system would provide air defense protection for a large part of Syria. Moscow and Damascus have also reached an agreement to modernize Syria's anti-aircraft network by upgrading medium-range S-125 missile complexes that were sold to Syria in the 1980s. Another instance of secret activity at the port came on March 9, 2005, when yet another Russian Black Sea Fleet vessel, the Azov, supposedly carrying machinery for rebuilding the moorage at the Tartus technical base and replacements for obsolete items in the base's storage, left for Syria. When it arrived at the port, several suspicious meetings between local authorities and Russian Navy officers took place, Russian media reported.
Less than two months later, Syria test fired new Scud missiles. The Syrians launched one Scud B missile with a range of 300 kilometers, and two Scud D missiles with a range of 700 kilometers. It is tempting to suggest that technologies for these projectiles were among the "equipment" brought on board the Azov. The Russians have not stopped at moving missiles in their attempt to make an impression in the region. On one occasion they sent fighter planes into Israeli airspace.
In January 1996, the Russian Navy aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov came very close to Israeli territorial waters. On January 27, it launched several advanced Su-33 fighters, the naval version of the Su-27. The jets ventured into Israeli air space near Haifa. IAF planes were scrambled to intercept, but a skirmish was avoided. The incident was kept secret for six years and was only revealed in 2002 in an article in the Israel Air Force magazine. According to the report, Russian planes entered Israel's airspace at least twice and several F-16 scrambled for an intercept mission after an intrusion alert was received.