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Interview: What's On Agenda As Medvedev Heads To Syria?


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) meets with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Damascus on May 10.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) meets with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Damascus on May 10.

WASHINGTON -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev travels today to Syria, where he is due to meet with President Bashar al-Assad for talks on economic partnership, military cooperation, and prospects for Middle East peace negotiations.

RFE/RL Washington correspondent Richard Solash asked Mark Katz, a professor at Virginia's George Mason University and an expert on Russian policy in the Middle East, about what the Russian leader is likely to try to achieve with his visit to the region.

RFE/RL: What are major issues on the agenda when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev arrives for talks in Damascus?

Mark Katz:
I think that there are different issues that they could talk about. Obviously there's Tartus, the naval facility. Refurbishing that is one issue. Another issue is Russian arms sales and just how that's going to be paid for.

But I think probably a very sensitive issue would be the Israeli charges that Syria is transferring Russian missiles and other weaponry to Hizballah [in Lebanon], and I think that the Russians are going to want reassurances that that's not going to happen any further -- that this is not a helpful thing at all. The Syrians, of course, will deny they are doing anything like this, and I think this a difficult issue in Russian-Syrian relations, considering that Russian-Israeli relations are actually pretty good.
I think that Russia wants to be seen to be an actor in the Middle East and they want to be seen to be acting responsibly.


RFE/RL: Is Russia likely to abandon its arms shipments to Syria as a result of the allegations regarding Hizballah?

Katz:
It will just be very difficult for Russia to make future arms shipments. I think that they [Russia] want to be seen as a responsible party by everyone -- that Russia is willing to help the Arab side. But they [Russia] insist that they only send weapons for defensive purposes -- and of course, if these weapons are getting into Hizballah's hands, they're not using them defensively at all.

So I think that Russia wants to be seen to be an actor in the Middle East and they want to be seen to be acting responsibly. I have a feeling that it's not going to be a real happy visit.

Responsible Actor

RFE/RL: Russian news agencies are reporting that Iran's nuclear program will be a key subject of discussion between Medvedev and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has aligned his country with Tehran. Do you foresee this?

Katz:
No, I really don't. I don't think that's Moscow's style. Syria's not going to do anything to influence Iran positively, so I don't see them doing that at all. In other words, I can't believe it would be a serious subject of discussion between them.

RFE/RL: The United States recently renewed sanctions against Damascus. Will Medvedev's visit cause concern in Washington, which has been touting the success of its "reset" with Moscow?

Katz:
There will be concern, but in fact, what can the U.S. do about it? Or if the U.S. does something about it, will this be what harms the relationship? In other words, how much of an issue do we [in the United States] want to make of it? How really concerned are we?

I think the Republicans will be far more concerned about this. I think the Obama administration will be embarrassed by it, but maybe they can even make some hay with the Israelis by saying, "Well, look, we're trying to isolate Syria, but we're not being so successful here, and perhaps if you were more forthcoming on settlement issues, housing issues, then we could get Russia to do this as well."

Friends With Everyone

RFE/RL: How could the visit affect Russian-Israeli relations?

Katz:
Again, Russian-Israeli relations are pretty good, and so I'm sure the Israelis are talking to the Russians about this and I have no doubt that the Russians are reassuring the Israelis that nothing really serious is happening, and in fact, Russia is acting to restrain Syria. They'll tell different things to different people.
One of the most important motivations for them is that they do not want the North Caucasus to become a cause celebre in the Muslim world the way that Afghanistan was in the 1980s.


RFE/RL: What does Medvedev's visit to Syria say about Russia's current Middle East policy?

Katz:
Moscow's policy in the Middle East is to be friends with everyone. With Israel, with moderate Arabs, with radical Arabs, with Iran. Russia is friends with everyone except for Al-Qaeda, and of course Al-Qaeda is friends with no one. Moscow is even friends with Hamas and Hizballah.

I think that partly, it's that they're pursuing their economic interests. But also, one of the most important motivations for them is that they do not want the North Caucasus to become a cause celebre in the Muslim world the way that Afghanistan was in the 1980s.

And what's interesting is that they've largely succeeded. In other words, the Muslim world just doesn't seem to care about Muslims in Russia, and basically, the Russians seem to have argued: "We're with you on all kinds of things, whether it's Palestine or Iraq or anything you might care to mention. And in that we are so much with you, you should accept our argument that these are just a few discontented radicals in the North Caucasus [and] that most Russian Muslims are happy in Russia."
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