Analysis / The Cost of a New Friend

Bashar Assad did not set the date for his first state visit to Moscow. Actually, he wanted to be Vladimir Putin's guest a year ago, but when he found out that Ariel Sharon was a more desirable guest than him and had preceded him, Assad tried to beat Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Moscow. But he didn't get that wish, either. Russia plays by its own rules in the Middle East, and Assad's visit, four years after becoming Syria's president, is a meeting between two very unequal partners.

It is clear to both sides - and to Washington - that Russia wants to resume playing a strategic role in the Middle East, getting back to roles it used to play before it took a position against the invasion of Iraq and before that, when it maintained close ties to Saddam Hussein and his regime. Nor has Russia rejoined the political process between Israel and the Palestinians despite being a member of the Quartet, which has lost its role in any case.

The new handle that could serve Moscow, therefore, is Damascus, on condition that it become part of some form of political process.

But since there is no sign of that on the horizon, at least until after the disengagement, Syria could serve Moscow's interests on another another front. If Washington realizes that Moscow could influence Syria's involvement in Iraq, especially on the eve of the elections to the Iraqi parliament, and if U.S. President George W. Bush is convinced that Putin could help actualize UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for Syrian forces to pull out of Lebanon, Russia could add another weight to its strategic place in the Middle East. One important weight it already carries is its close ties with Iran and its increasingly warm ties with Turkey and the new Iraq.

Thus, Russia is trying to rebuild the structure of influence that the Soviet Union maintained over the years, with the hope that it can somehow neutralize some of the extra weight in the region that the U.S. has picked up in recent years.

But such ambitions come with a price tag. This time it is readiness to forgive most of the debt built up by Syria in the days of Hafez Assad, a sum total of some $13 billion. As far as Syria is concerned, there is nothing more significant than forgiving a debt that Syria has laggardly paid back, since it contests the size of the debt.

But the public announcement of the forgiveness of $10 billion in debt, especially since Russia had long since realized it wasn't ever going to see the money, is a small price to pay for building some stature. Thus, the important question is whether Russia will fully adopt the role that the Soviet Union played, and also start a new campaign to sell arms in the region.

The missile deal with Syria, meanwhile, has been frozen, but that does not mean that other weapons deals might not be struck while Assad is in Moscow. Even Syria, especially because of its political and economic weakness, can demand a price for bringing Russia into the heart of the Middle East. It's a price with a practical meaning that could become a Syrian demand that Russia defend it from an Israeli or American attack. It's a request Russia is anticipating from its new friend, and it will be happily ready to pay the price of Syria's defense.