Why Russia's Dmitry Medvedev is visiting Syria

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is visiting Syria as part of a bid to raise Russia's Mideast profile. He discussed possible atomic energy development, and called on Hamas to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

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    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (r.) and Syrian President Bashar Assad (l.) review the honor guard upon their arrival at the presidential palace, in Damascus, Syria, on Monday. Medvedev arrived for his first visit to Syria to hand over a message from Israel to Syria as part of a flurry of diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions between the two countries.
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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spent part of his second day in Damascus in closed-door meetings with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, signaling Moscow's interest in bringing former Soviet allies back into its orbit.

In a joint press conference Monday evening, Mr. Medvedev, the first Russian head of state to visit Syria, said that Russia's commitment to Syria was consistent despite "changes in the world." President Assad, for his part, was quoted as saying that his country would "never forget how [Russia] stood by us during the battle for the Golan [Heights]" with Israel. He also requested Moscow's continued support in demanding that Israel return the land it seized during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Both countries have much to gain from improved ties. Syria could strengthen its hand by drawing closer to its one-time ally, whose veto on the UN Security Council could prove key in any conflict with Israel. Russia, for its part, wants to bolster its presence in the Middle East, and could also further cool Syria's recent but waning interest in restoring diplomatic relations with the United States. Assad had welcomed several high-ranking US officials to Damascus recently, though his rhetoric toward the US remained critical.

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"US-Syrian relations have been deteriorating for some months now, and Syria is losing hope in any peace deal, and that means that there's gong to be conflict between Syria and Israel," says Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. "Syria's strategy is going to be to try to isolate the US in the Middle East, and to hang Israel around America's neck."

President Obama in February nominated veteran diplomat Robert Ford as ambassador, a post that had been vacant since the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, for which some blamed Syria. But after that brief US-Syria warming, a chill has again descended, with Republicans this month blocking Mr. Ford's confirmation and Obama renewing economic sanctions. Further straining matters was the US condemnation of Syria after Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, claimed last month that Syria was transferring long-range missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The recent US rapprochement with Syria was an attempt to draw it away from its support for Hezbollah, which the US considers a terrorist organization, and to end its allegiance with Iran. But Syria has balked at US calls for action: In response to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's calls for Syria to distance itself from Iran in February, for example, Assad responded by announcing, prior to a visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that the countries would lift visa restrictions allowing citizens to travel freely between Iran and Syria.

"We do not want others to give us lessons on our region, our history. We can determine how things should go and we know our interests… [but] we thank them for their advice," Assad told reporters during the February announcement.

Release Gilad Shalit?

During his visit, Medvedev called on Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip, to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Earlier, he had also called for the Middle East to be free of nuclear weapons.

In addition to lauding their unwavering bond, the two leaders have used Medvedev's visit to discuss increased economic ties. Russian gas giant Gazprom is expanding its presence in Syria with additional oil exploration and Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko accompanied Medvedev to discuss the project. The leaders also entertained possible atomic energy development.

"Cooperation on atomic energy [with Syria] could get a second wind," Medvedev said Monday, without elaborating. Assad told reporters the two had discussed possibilities for developing nuclear power plants inside Syria – despite ongoing calls by Western countries that Syria comply with an International Atomic Energy Agency inquiry into whether a site destroyed by Israeli war planes in 2007 was a nuclear reactor intended for weapon-making.

The visit was given a prominent public profile. The Arabic translation of Medvedev's statements appeared in a number of government-monitored daily newspapers. And some Syrians recalled the long connection between their country and the Russian bear. "Russia has always been our friend," says Nihal Amin, a retired teacher from Damascus who spent a year as a youth studying in Leipzig in East Germany and traveling to Soviet states. "We were the first Arab country to align with them during Soviet times, and now they're supporting us."

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