Russian President Dmitri Medvedev's 17-hour visit to Damascus this week – from Monday, May 10 at 8 PM to Tuesday, May 11, at 2 PM – when he left for two days in Ankara – was the high point of a whole new diplomatic and military ball game in the Middle East, just launched by a team of four: Russia, Turkey, Syria and Qatar.
Reporting this development, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Moscow and the Middle East list this nascent bloc's objectives as being:
1. To deactivate Washington's threatened sanctions against Iran, whether imposed through the UN Security Council or unilaterally.
2. To allow Iran's nuclear program to continue as long as it is not proved to be non-civilian.
3. For Moscow to displace Washington in the lead of diplomatic engagement with Iran.
4. To buttress the pro-Tehran Syria-Hizballah-Hamas alignment in the Middle East with the addition of Turkey as a member.
Personally involved in the initial steps of this emerging alliance are Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan, Syrian President Bashar Assad, Qatar ruler Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Thani, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu, and surprisingly, a personal representative of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Anointing Moscow senior mediator on Iranian nuclear issue
Our sources disclose that Sunday, May 9, twenty-four hours before Medvedev's arrival in Damascus, the Turkish, Syrian and Qatari leaders foregathered in Ankara and decided to focus first on breaking up the united stand of the five UN Security Council powers (US, Russia, France, UK and China) plus Germany, who lead the international diplomatic effort to curb Iran's advance on a nuclear weapon.
Russia was targeted first. The threesome put together a plan of action for Assad to present to its president when he arrived in Damascus the next day. It consisted of three parts:
A. Russia would lead a new initiative to mediate the nuclear issue between Washington and Tehran at the head of a mini-grouping made up of Turkey, Syria and Qatar.
B. Russia would consent to the reprocessing of Iranian enriched uranium to a grade higher than 19.5 percent (which the powers had accepted), but less than weapons grade. The process would take place in Russia or Turkey.
C. Russia would join the three-nation group's drive to win the support of the European Union and so internationally isolate the United States on the Iranian question.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that the three rulers behind this initiative fully expected Moscow to be an easy target if offered the lead role. They were encouraged by their contacts during last week with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin via Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Presidential Special Envoy to the Middle East Alexander Sultanov.
Tehran maneuvers Moscow into its corner
By going along with this plan, its authors argued, Moscow would eclipse Washington in the diplomatic process with Iran and also be perceived in the Muslim world as the only power able to curb or even torpedo America's designs on the Middle East. With Russia aboard, China would jump in too, so bringing the Obama administration's toughened sanctions drive against Iran to a grinding halt.
Throughout these discussions, Assad kept a direct line open to Iranian leaders in Tehran.
He was therefore able to keep Erdogan and Emir Thani abreast of Iranian thinking straight from the horse's mouth while at the same time opening the door for Iran to drive a hard bargain with Moscow.
Iran was in on the plan, he was told, provided Moscow met the two conditions to be presented to President Medvedev on his arrival in Damascus: First, Russia must scrap its pledge to Washington to refrain from activating Iran's first nuclear reactor in Bushehr this summer; and, secondly, Moscow must make good on its 2007 contract to supply Iran with advanced S-300 anti-ballistic missile systems, delivery of which is held up by another Kremlin promise to the White House.
Assad explained that Tehran could not bring itself to trust Moscow as honest broker in nuclear diplomacy if it defaulted on its former commitments to Tehran.
And so the three-way meeting in Ankara was slickly maneuvered into seconding Tehran's most pressing demands of Moscow and bending the Russians to its will.
Medvedev promises Syria a nuclear reactor
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow sources report that the Kremlin knew what was going on and saw in the new plan an opportunity to advance its goals. A consultation with Putin yielded a decision for Medvedev to tell the Syrian ruler that Russia views the three-power group's plan positively and is prepared to discuss its implementation.
So when they first met Monday, May 10, the Russian president offered his Syrian host four gestures of goodwill for driving the budding alliance forward.
One was consent to stop foot-dragging on the final stages of the Bushehr atomic plant and meet Putin's former pledge to get it finished this summer.
The second was for Medvedev to meet publicly with the Hamas political secretary Khaled Meshaal who lives in Damascus. This would show Europe and the Arab world that Moscow was taking the most important Middle East allies of Damascus and Tehran under its wing. The event did indeed take place Tuesday, May 11, in Assad's presence.
A Russian nuclear power station was also promised Syria, notwithstanding the International Atomic Energy Agency's incomplete probe of Syria's nuclear weapons projects and procurement of nuclear technology from North Korea.
With regard to the advanced S-300 anti-ballistic missiles, Medvedev said the matter was back on the table with a view to expeditious action.
Moscow's smiles for Damascus draw frowns from Washington
Although wise to the swirl of inimical activity around the Russian president's visit to Damascus, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington report the Obama administration watched and did nothing – until the S-300 missile question came up and touched a red line.
President Barack Obama reacted by sending his top nuclear adviser, coordinator of weapons of mass destruction Gary Samore, to issue a statement.
Samore told reporters Tuesday, May 11, that because of the setbacks in Iran's enrichment program, "the nuclear clock is not ticking as quickly as some had feared."
He then went on to say that the United States had made clear to Russia that delivering a promised advanced air defense system to Iran would have serious implications on US-Russian relations, adding he would be surprised if Russia fulfilled Tehran's 2007 order for the S-300 air defense system.
These remarks carried a twofold reproof from Washington to Moscow:
First, the Russians were advised not to be in a hurry to join the Turkish-Syrian-Qatari grouping because the setbacks in the Iranian nuclear program had given the Obama administration more time to get tough new sanctions in train, especially when US military action against Iran – and even more, an Israeli military strike – was not in immediate prospect.
The Kremlin is not deterred
The other message from Washington was that a Kremlin decision to deliver S-300 systems to Iran, in breach of Russian prime minister's pledge to the US president, would generate a serious personal crisis between President Obama and the two Russian leaders, Putin and Medvedev.
The last straw for the US president was the piece of intelligence relayed to Washington this week, first disclosed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources, that Iranian teams were being secretly trained in the operation of S-300 missiles at Russian bases.
This was the first time President Obama had ever addressed Russian leaders in the language of ultimatum.
Still talking tough, Wednesday, May 12, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters: "What concerns us is … Syria has not answered questions that have been raised about its compliance with the NPT," the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. "And all countries that contemplate energy cooperation need to take that into account."
But Medvedev was not at once deterred by the disapproval radiating from Washington.
He flew directly from Damascus to Ankara to continue discussions with the Turkish prime minister on the mooted Russian-led Muslim group of four and its plan to seize the lead in the international nuclear dialogue with Tehran from the United States.