Hugh Macleod / The Guardian & DEBKA file-IPS & Simon Tisdall / The Guardian & Foster Klug / Associated Press – 2008-10-11 23:02:56
From Syrian Fishing Port to Naval Power Base:
Russia Moves into the Mediterranean
Hugh Macleod / The Guardian
BEIRUT (October 8 2008) — During balmy evenings in the sleepy Syrian port of Tartous locals promenade along the seafront or suck on hookahs discussing the two great pillars of their society: business and family.
Politics, such as it is in the tightly controlled one-party state, rarely gets a mention, and certainly not in public. But few could fail to wonder about the foreign sailors dockside and the grey warship dominating a harbour that was once a trading hub of the Phoenician empire and is now the centre of a new projection of power, this time by Syria’s old ally Russia.
Tartous is being dredged and renovated to provide a permanent facility for the Russian navy, giving Moscow a key military foothold in the Mediterranean at a time when Russia’s invasion of Georgia has led to fears of a new cold war.
The bolstering of military ties between Russia and Syria has also worried Israel, whose prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was in Moscow yesterday seeking to persuade the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, to stop Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran. Mr Olmert later said he had received assurances that Russia would not allow Israel’s security to be threatened, but offered no indication he won any concrete promises on Russian arms sales.
Igor Belyaev, Russia’s charge d’affaires in Damascus, recently told reporters that his country would increase its presence in the Mediterranean and that “Russian vessels will be visiting Syria and other friendly ports more frequently”.
That announcement followed a meeting between Medvedev and the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, at the Black sea port of Sochi in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s victory over Georgian forces and its recognition of the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – actions Assad supported.
Now, with Ukraine threatening to expel Russia’s Black sea fleet from its base in Sebastopol, the only route for the Russian navy into the Mediterranean, military cooperation between Moscow and Damascus appears to have taken on a new zeal.
“Israel and the US supported Georgia against Russia, and Syria thus saw a chance to capitalise on Russian anger by advancing its long-standing relations with Moscow,” said Taha Abdel Wahed, a Syrian expert on Russian affairs. “Syria has a very important geographical position for the Russians. Relations between Damascus and Moscow may not yet be strategic, but they are advancing rapidly.”
Tartous was once a re-supplying point for the Soviet navy at a time when Moscow sold Syria billions of dollars worth of arms. “Tartous is of great geopolitical significance considering that it is the only such Russian facility abroad,” a former Russian navy deputy commander, Igor Kasatonov, said, following a meeting on September 12 in Moscow between the naval leaders from Russia and Syria.
Syrian-Russian relations cooled after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they have taken on a new dynamic since Assad succeeded his father in 2000. After a state visit to Russia in 2005, he persuaded Moscow to wipe three-quarters off a £7.6bn debt Syria owed, mainly from arms sales.
Since then the two countries have been in talks about upgrading Syria’s missile defences with Russia’s advanced Strelets system, provoking condemnation from Israel, whose fighter jets in September 2007 flew unchallenged into north-east Syria to bomb a suspected nuclear site.
Last month Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Moscow would consider selling Damascus new weapons that “have a defensive character and that do not in any way interfere with the strategic balance in the region”. Though no defence pact has been signed between the two, as it has between Syria and Iran, observers suggest the very presence of Russian warships in Tartous would bolster Damascus’s military standing in the region.
“Israel would think twice about attacking Syria again with Russian ships stationed in Tartous,” said Abdel Wahed, an analyst.
A senior Israeli colonel has also accused Russia of passing intelligence about Israel to Syria and indirectly to Hizbullah.
Describing electronic eavesdropping stations on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights believed to be operated by Russian technicians, Ram Dor, information security chief for the armed forces, told an Israeli newspaper: “My assessment is that their facilities cover most of the state of Israel’s territory. The Syrians share the intelligence that they gather with Hizbullah, and the other way around.”
During the 2006 July war Hizbullah fighters used advanced Russian tank-buster missiles to cripple at least 40 of Israel’s Merkava tanks, a key tipping point in a war that Israel later admitted it lost.
The Russian embassy in Damascus could not be reached for comment.
Russia Raided Georgian Airfields To Be Used By Israel Against Iran
PARIS (September 15, 2008) — As Tehran continue to deploy an oversize and much disputed diplomatic activity concerning the Caucasian crisis, placing itself on the side of Moscow and criticizing the ”unwise” decision of the pro-American Georgian President to handle the situation, an Israeli intelligence news service says that the overwhelming Russian response to the Georgian provocation was to destroy facilities that Israel could use to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.
According to DEBKAfile, which has the reputation of being “close” to the Israeli secret services Mossad, the raids, disclosed by Arnaud de Borchgrave, the Chief Editor of the Arab owned United Press International (UPI), a veteran high flying journalist who is also on the Washington Times staff, the Russian raided two Georgian airfields which Tbilisi had allowed Israel to use for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Flying time for Israeli planes from South Georgia to Iran is much less than from Israel itself
The unconfirmed information followed the Georgian offensive against South Ossetia on 7 August 2008, leading to the invasion of most strategic areas in Georgia by Russia and the subsequent declaration of independence from Tbilisi by both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, an act made “irrevocable” after Moscow recognized their independence.
While the close cooperation between Israel and Georgia in military and intelligence fields are an open secret, DEBKAfile goes farther, saying “Under the secret agreement with Georgia, the airfields had been earmarked for use by Israeli fighter-bombers taking off to strike Iran in return for training and arms supplies”.
By “intelligence sources” estimates, flying from South Georgia over the Caspian Sea to Iran would sharply trim the distance to be spanned by Israeli fighter-bombers, reducing flying time to 3.5 hours.
“Northern Iran and the Tehran region, where most of the nuclear facilities are concentrated, would be within range, with no need to request US permission to pass through Iraq air space”, DEBKAfile says, adding that “Russian Special Forces also raided other Israeli facilities in southern Georgia and captured Israeli spy drones”.
Israel was said to have used the two airfields to “conduct recon flights over southern Russia as well as into nearby Iran”. The US intelligence sources quoted by UPI reported that the Russian force also carried home other Israeli military equipment captured at the air bases.
“Our sources say that if the Russians got hold of an Israeli unmanned aerial vehicle complete with sophisticated electronic reconnaissance equipment, they will have secured some of the Israel Defence Forces’s most secret devices for spying on Iran and Syria”.
The information comes at a time that psychological war is raging between the Iran and the Jewish State, with each one menacing the other with “fatal” destruction.
Tel-Aviv, backed by the United States and most of the Western nations accuses the ruling Iranian ayatollahs of seeking nuclear weapons to destroy Israel. For its part, Tehran, while rejecting vehemently these accusations, insists that the main source of instability and crisis in the Middle East comes from both the occupation of “Muslim” lands by the Americans in the one hand and the “savage” and” inhuman” treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis.
The Caucasian crisis is considered as “blessed bread” for the lamed government of the Iranian fanatic President, Mahmoud Ahmadi Nezhad, who, because of his devastating economic decisions, crackdowns on dissidents, hard line foreign policy and particularly uncompromising nuclear activities, is under growing criticism both at home and outside.
In fact, as a result of the unprecedented confrontation between Moscow and Washington over the Caucasian issue, a reminder of the cold war, Russia, in exchange of the Iranian backing, has openly warned the three western veto holding nations of the United Nations Security Council that it would no longer accept any further sanctions against Tehran over its controversial nuclear activities.
Backing the Russian devastating Russian attack on Georgia, Keyhan a hard line Iranian newspaper that has access to highly classified information and also reflects the views of the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameneh’i, claimed that the “invasion” of South Ossetia by Georgian forces was decided by the Georgian Defence minister, “a Jew who lived in Israel and was trained there, who alsio arranged for the purchase of more than 200 million US Dollars sophisticated weapons from Israel and the training of special Georgian commandos”.
So far, the Security Council has approved three resolutions against the Islamic Republic of Iran, calling on the Iranian ayatollahs to suspend nuclear activities for a certain period allowing international nuclear experts to determine if the atomic works have not also a military use.
In his last report filed to the board of directors, the Head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said it is incapable to confirm or infirm that Iranian nuclear activities have only a civilian character and are not deviated for military use.
China Warns US over Plan for
$6.5 Billion Arms Sale to Taiwan
Simon Tisdall / The Guardian
WASHINGTON (October 8, 2008) — China cancelled a visit to Washington by a senior general, slapped an indefinite ban on port calls by US naval vessels, and cancelled low-level diplomatic exchanges with the US yesterday, in retaliation for a US plan to sell $6.5bn (£3.7bn) of advanced weaponry to Taiwan.
China’s foreign ministry in Beijing said the move broke international law and would cast a shadow over bilateral relations. The proposed sale “has contaminated the sound atmosphere for our military relations and gravely jeopardised China’s national security”, a spokesman, Qin Gang, said.
China regards Taiwan, which has had de facto independence since 1949, as a renegade province. But its aim to unify the island with the mainland is opposed by a majority of Taiwanese. Under a 1979 law the US in effect pledged to help Taiwan defend itself against any attempt by China to forcibly acquire the territory.
The Pentagon described China’s reaction as “unfortunate” and said it would lead to missed opportunities. But both sides appeared anxious to limit the fallout from the row. US-China cooperation on nuclear proliferation issues in Iran and North Korea was not expected to be affected.
The arms sale was first proposed by the US in 2001 but ran into opposition in Taiwan’s parliament as well as in Beijing. It was initially valued at $12bn and potentially included Aegis-class frigates, submarines and advanced F16 fighter jets.
The current package is less ambitious, consisting of defensive weapons systems. It includes 330 Patriot ground-to-air missiles, 30 Apache helicopters, 182 Javelin anti-tank missiles and spare parts for Taiwan’s existing fleet of F16 fighters.
China has expanded its military spending in recent years and has deployed an estimated 1,000 missiles across the Taiwan Strait, facing Taiwan.
Prickly US relations with Taiwan have eased since the election as president last March of Ma Ying-jeou, the nationalist Kuomintang party leader and former Taipei mayor. Ma has taken steps to improve cross-straits relations, including direct charter flights, a lifting of caps on Taiwanese investment in China, and the opening of permanent representative offices in both countries.
As a result, Chen Yunlin, the official in charge of China’s Taiwan policy, is expected to visit the island soon. It would be the highest-level contact since 1949.
Pakistan’s President Condemns Unilateral Attacks
Foster Klug / Associated Press
(September 25, 2008) — Angered by US raids into Pakistan in search of terrorists, Pakistan’s new president warned Thursday that his country cannot allow its territory to “be violated by our friends.”
After placing a picture of his assassinated wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, on the podium, President Asif Ali Zardari told world leaders that such attacks strengthen the extremists the US and others are trying to destroy.
His speech at the UN General Assembly, which often emotionally described Pakistan’s battle against terrorists, comes at a tense moment in US-Pakistan relations.
Pakistani soldiers fired at US reconnaissance helicopters along the Pakistan-Afghan border Thursday, officials said, sparking a ground battle between American and Pakistani soldiers.
“Just as we will not let Pakistan’s territory to be used by terrorists for attacks against our people and our neighbors, we cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends,” Zardari said.
“Unilateral actions of great powers should not inflame the passions of allies,” he said.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan is deemed crucial to US-led efforts to battle extremists in South Asia. The United States has pushed Pakistan to crack down on extremists using the border region with Afghanistan as a safe haven, and has stepped up attacks on suspected militants in Pakistan’s frontier area, mostly by missiles fired from unmanned drones operating from Afghanistan.
But the unilateral incursions — especially a ground raid into South Waziristan by American commandos Sept. 3 — have infuriated Pakistanis already wary of their country’s ties to the US and have strained ties between Washington and Zardari’s new government.
Zardari, in his speech, called on the world to “take notice” that Pakistan is not the cause of terrorism.
Referring to last week’s deadly hotel bombing in the Pakistani capital, Zardari said that, “once again, Pakistan is the great victim in the war on terror. And once again our people wonder whether we stand alone.”
Pakistan’s military has won American praise for a recent offensive against militants. Many in Washington, however, say Pakistan has not done enough with the billions in aid the US has provided to fight terrorists.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians, Zardari said, have died fighting terrorists. “We have lost more soldiers than all 37 countries that have forces in Afghanistan put together,” he said. “We have fought this battle largely alone.”
He urged world leaders to “stand with us, just as we stand for the entire civilized world on the front lines of this epic struggle.”
Zardari is president of a democratic, civilian government that replaced Pervez Musharraf, a strong US ally and former general who took power in a 1999 coup.
The Bush administration once championed Musharraf as “indispensable.” But the US began distancing itself from Musharraf after the election of the civilian government in February and has been careful to signal support for Zardari’s rise to power.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that she and Zardari talked Thursday “about how we might assist Pakistan in doing what it needs to do, but I think there’s a very strong commitment” to fight a shared enemy.
Earlier Thursday, Zimbabwe’s president lashed out at Western powers in his speech to the General Assembly, accusing them of genocide and calling for the removal of US and British sanctions.
Robert Mugabe slammed Western-led efforts earlier this year at the UN to step up punitive measures against his government, and he praised Russia and China for blocking them.
“By the way, those who falsely accuse us of these violations are themselves international perpetrators of genocide, acts of aggression and mass destruction,” Mugabe said in his speech.
“The masses of innocent men, women and children who have perished in their thousands in Iraq surely demand retribution and vengeance. Who shall heed their cry?” Mugabe asked.
The United States only had a note-taker present for Mugabe’s speech.
Western sanctions have targeted individuals and companies seen to be supporting Mugabe’s government and were tightened after elections this spring.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the most votes in March presidential polling, but not enough to avoid a runoff against Mugabe. An onslaught of violence against Tsvangirai’s supporters led him to drop out of the presidential runoff, and Mugabe was declared the overwhelming winner of the second vote, which was widely denounced as a sham.
Under the power-sharing deal signed Sept. 15 with his rivals, Mugabe is supposed to cede some of the powers he has wielded for nearly three decades in the southern African country.
Also addressing the General Assembly on Thursday was Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who said his government has “relentless determination” to impose the rule of law and disarm militias.
“The road to achieving our desired goal of a secure, stable and prosperous Iraqi is long,” Talabani said. “We hope that the international community will support and assist Iraq in achieving these goals.”
Talabani also called on nations to reopen their diplomatic missions in Iraq.
Associated Press writers Krista Larson and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.
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