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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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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.

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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."