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From Russia with Love

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This has been a busy month so far for the Syrians. The US Congress blocked Obama's attempt to appoint Robert Ford as ambassador following reports of Syrian Scud missiles being transferred to Hezbollah, and on 3 May Washington renewed economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria that have been in place since 2004.

While the US remains unwilling or unable to reach out to Damascus, the Russians have no such worries, prompting concern that the first visit of a Russian leader to Syria since 1917 could trigger a new Middle Eastern cold war.

The actual trigger takes the form of Russian arms supplies to Syria with a deal being struck to provide the Damascus regime with MiG-29 fighters, truck-mounted Pantsir short-range surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery systems and anti-tank systems.

Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman criticised the deal, arguing that "weapons sales don't contribute to an atmosphere of peace" (despite his country spending over $15bn annually, on arms in comparison to Syria's $6bn). An editorial in the Lebanese Daily Star bemoaned the arms deal as a "tragic waste", arguing that the Syrian government was wasting money on arms that could be far better spent dealing with the estimated one million people who have been displaced by drought in the past 18 months.

Yet the weapons deal is just the tip of a far greater relationship between the two countries. Since the 1950s, tens of thousands of Syrians have been educated in Russia, while Russian expertise has created much of Syria's infrastructure, with the Syrian ministry of economy estimating that the Russians are responsible for 90 industrial facilities and pieces of infrastructure, one-third of Syria's electrical power capability, one-third of its oil-producing facilities and a threefold expansion of land under irrigation - aided in part by assistance with building the massive Euphrates dam.

Syria's military ties with the Soviet Union were consolidated in the 1950s, during which time future president Hafez Assad travelled to Moscow in 1958 to take a night-flying course on Russian MiGs. The Soviets would become what biographer Patrick Seale called "the principal ally of his presidency", in which arms sales were part of a "framework of trust and consultation". Support only tapered off towards the demise of the Soviet Union, and Syria's pragmatism was confirmed when it joined the US-led coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

Now the Russians are back. Following a spate in 2008 over Israel's support to Georgia, the Russians have been steadily increasing their supply of weapons to Syria. In addition, the upgraded naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus has significantly boosted Russia's operational capability in the region, allowing the warships based there to reach the Red Sea through the Suez canal and the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar in a matter of days.

Regarding economic ties, Russia's transportation minister is reported as saying that they may open a direct maritime connection between the Syrian port of Latakia and Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea to ship cargo directly, while the Russian gas giant, Gazprom, is also expanding its presence in Syria with additional oil exploration. Russian energy minister Sergei Shmatko, who accompanied President Medvedev to Damascus, even promised the possibility of nuclear energy co-operation.

In March, cultural ties were improved between the two countries with the visit of Russian culture minister Alexander Avdeyev who described how "Syria can show Russia its folk bands and paintings, while Russia can show Syria its intellectual cinema and museums". In addition to agreements in the fields of air services and information and communication technology, two more agreements on technical scientific and environmental co-operation, as well as a joint work programme to implement the agreement of tourism co-operation in 2010-2012, were signed at the Syrian foreign ministry.

Yet, crucial to understanding the situation today, is how in 1970 Assad played upon the ideas of Syria's "strategic importance" to make simultaneous overtures to the US and the Soviets. In the words of historian Eberhard Kienle, he succeeded "in inducing them to outbid each other". Such a dual strategy was reflected by Assad signing an agreement on economic co-operation with the Soviets while pursuing a western-orientated policy of infitah (economic opening up).

Today, Assad the younger is once again reaching out in all directions to pursue what he sees as Syria's interest. This pragmatism should be acknowledged by an institutionally obstinate US that must by now realise that its policy of non-engagement has simply brought it no reward over the past six years, whether it is in weakening Syria's relations with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran or improving the country's human rights record.

Syrian-Russian relations, which go beyond arms deals to a range of trade and cultural ties, are not a challenge to the US but rather should be a prompt to Washington to accept that almost a decade of policies have failed and that a new course must be adopted.