Syrian president Bashar Assad arrived at the Black Sea resort of Sochi Aug. 21 full of high expectations of fine rewards, as the only Arab ruler to solidly support Moscow’s side in the conflict over Georgia. He came ready to offer Russia a base in Syria for Iskandar missiles as Moscow’s rejoinder for the US missile shield in Poland.
But the Syrian ruler left Sochi with a long face.
He was surprised not to find Russian president Dmitry Medvedev not exactly falling over himself to grant Assad’s every wish for sophisticated weapons on the spot.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Moscow and intelligence source report, the Russian president did agree to let Syria have Mig-31 fighters, Pantsyr-S1 anti-air missiles and the next-generation series of anti-tank missiles, and transform Tartus port into the Russian Black Sea fleet’s second base after Sevastopol.
But not just yet.
Our sources report that the Kremlin, in opening a second front in the Middle East, has decided that its interests lie in strengthening Damascus’ bond with Tehran – but in its own way. In contrast, the West seeks to break that bond, a mission laid on French president Nicolas Sarkozy when he visits Damascus Wednesday, Sept. 3.
Medvedev explained to Assad that Moscow’s first priority was to respond to Iran’s requirements, after which the Russians would attend to building up Syria’s military. Therefore, the Kremlin had decided to finish Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr by the end of 2008. Russia would perform a rush job in four months on the project after dragging its feet for five years to honor Putin’s promise to President George W. Bush.
When that project is finished, it would be Damascus’ turn.
Moscow willing to foot the bill for five years’ arrears
Our sources report that Assad was so taken aback, that he was lost for an answer.
Aug. 23, the day he left for home, the Russian ambassador in Tehran, Alexander Sadovnikov, announced that Iran’s first Russian-build nuclear plant in the southern city of Bushehr would “become operational by the end of 2008.”
He acknowledged the project was long overdue, blaming “sanctions imposed by Western powers.” In keeping with the contract, he said, Russia would bear the expense of additional delays to Bushehr. He did not elaborate on this.
When Assad arrived home, he called the Russian president and asked for a face-saving step to show his country and fellow rulers in the Middle East that he had not returned from Sochi empty-handed and negotiations on arms deals were proceeding.
The response came Wednesday, Aug. 27, when Igor Belayev, the Russian charge d’affaires in Damascus told reporters: “Our navy’s presence in the Mediterranean will increase. Russian vessels will be visiting Syria and other friendly ports more frequently.” He added that directives had been handed down to promote ties in the economic, trade and energy fields as well as military cooperation.”
Moscow’s exceptional willingness to bear the expenses of five years of delays in completing Bushehr, an unheard-of concession in the post-Soviet era, and willingness to give Assad’s reputation a leg up, attest to the Kremlin’s determination to open a fresh page in its ties with Iran and Syria as underpinning for its new front against Washington.
Moscow is not letting the grass grow under its feet; a Russian delegation is reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian and Russian sources to be due in Tehran next week, headed by Federal Atomic Energy Agency director Sergei Kireinko.
The visitors will spend 10 day in talks with Iranian nuclear energy officials to iron out the problems of the Bushehr project, including finances.