The Russians Are Coming... To Damascus

The Bulletin (Link) - David Bedein (May 15, 2010)

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who visited the Syrian capital of Damascus, arrived with a sharp and clear Israeli message that was conveyed at the start of the week by Israeli President Shimon Peres: Israel wants peace, but is not willing to accept Hezbollah�s military buildup.

In the message that is being conveyed by the Russian president, Israel clarified that it had no intention of attacking Syria and was not interested in a regional conflagration. However, Syria must stop the attempts to transfer arms to Hezbollah. Israeli officials are concerned by what has been defined as Syrian President Bashar Assad�s failure to understand the severity with which Israel perceives the situation. �Assad is playing with fire and doesn�t understand that our patience is running out,� said a senior official in Jerusalem. �There are very dangerous arms here that are flowing freely to Lebanon, and Israel cannot accept this.�

On his visit to Moscow for a meeting with the Russian president, Mr. Peres sought to convey a clear message to Mr. Assad. �You can tell him that five prime ministers have agreed to give back the Golan Heights,� Mr. Peres said to Mr. Medvedev, �but we cannot give it back if [missile] batteries from Iran will immediately be stationed there, as happened after we withdrew from Lebanon and Gaza.� Mr. Peres told Mr. Medvedev that Mr. Assad would have to choose whether he was headed for war and missiles or to peace with Israel.

The Israeli message to Syria was also conveyed by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who met last night with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos. The Spanish minister was scheduled to meet Wednesday evening with Mr. Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. Political sources said that the Israeli statements to Syria were also conveyed through the U.S. administration, the European Union and senior U.N. officials.

The Russian president held a three-way meeting yesterday in Damascus with Mr. Assad and Hamas Political Bureau Director Khaled Mashal. Mr. Medvedev recommended to Mashal to free Gilad Shalit as soon as possible. The Russian president said that the affair of the kidnapped soldier was hampering the efforts to remove the blockade from the Gaza Strip. Mr. Medvedev warned Mr. Assad that if there was no positive progress in the peace process with Israel, a catastrophe was liable to occur in the Middle East. Mr. Assad, for his part, accused Israel of destroying the efforts for peace. �The expulsion of Palestinians from Jerusalem, the attacks on holy places and the blockade on the Palestinians in Gaza will destroy the peace process and cause its collapse,� the Syrian president said.

Syrian officials emphasized that Mr. Medvedev�s visit to Syria was an �historic visit� by a Russian president for the first time in decades. Yesterday, the two states signed a long series of cooperation agreements. Reports from Damascus stressed the Russian intention to build a military base in the Tartous port and the commitment to provide Syria with missiles and military equipment.

Russia Considering Building Nuclear Reactor In Syria

Meanwhile, Russia is considering helping Syria build a nuclear reactor for producing energy, said yesterday the Russian energy minister, who accompanied Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on his visit to Damascus. This Russian step is liable to be received with displeasure by various Western countries given the unfinished business surrounding the Syrian efforts to build a nuclear reactor for military purposes. According to reports in the foreign media, Israel destroyed from the air a nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria in September 2007. A U.N. investigation into the nature of the site that was attacked has been stymied as a result of Syrian refusal to cooperate.

Russian President Medvedev publicly discussed the possibility of nuclear cooperation with the Syrians. He also urged Washington to work harder to promote peace in the Middle East. �Cooperation on atomic energy might gain new momentum,� said Mr. Medvedev in a joint press conference he held with Syrian President Bashar Assad.