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New port for Russia?

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2007

The Russian navy, much as its predecessor the Soviet fleet, has long yearned for a warm water port to compensate for the long winter months when Baltic ports freeze over. If Syrian opposition forces are to be believed, Moscow's search may be over with Damascus offering the Russians use of their ports of Tartous and Latakia on the Mediterranean Sea.

Syrian officials, however, laugh at the idea, calling it "ridiculous." Imad Mustapha, Syria's ambassador to Washington, told me "you just can't hide battleships in the Mediterranean."

Some analysts believe that it was Moscow's quest for a warm water port that led the Soviet army into Afghanistan in 1979. The next logical step would have taken the Soviets into neighboring Pakistan and finally given the Kremlin their much-cherished link to the Arabian Sea.

But Moscow's battle plans did not unfold exactly as expected. The Red Army then, much as the U.S.-led coalition today, came to realize that eradicating the Islamist militias in Afghanistan was far harder than originally anticipated.

The Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan was ill-timed in the Cold War cycle, coming at a time when a hard-nosed Republican president was in the White House. The war eventually led to the demise of communism in Russia. Moscow became caught in a costly war, both in terms of human lives and rubles. Washington, naturally did all it could to speed up the process by forcing the Soviet Union to spend large sums of money — money it didn't have — by investing in a mega-expensive space initiative launched by President Ronald Reagan.

Furthermore, Washington fielded dozens of CIA operatives to help support, finance, arm and train the Afghan Mujahedeen. Washington thought it had found in the Mujahedeen a natural ally in the fight to rout communism.

Washington's ploy to defeat communism worked; the Berlin Wall came down as communism crumbled all around it in Central and Eastern Europe as well as in the former central Asian Soviet republics. But the plan backfired in Afghanistan where the Islamists' victory over communism gave birth to a new threat; Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. It was the latter's support, much of it financial, that allowed the extremist Taliban to take over the country.

The result of the Soviet's Afghan misadventure set the Kremlin's desire for a hot water port back and paved the way for the next conflict — the one between the Taliban/al Qaeda and their former backers, the United States.

The invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by Saddam Hussein and the ensuing arrival of foreign troops, primarily American soldiers in Saudi Arabia, the holy land of Islam, was seen as an insult to all Muslims by Osama bin Laden. It eventually led to what President George W. Bush now refers to as the "war on terror."

So how does all this tie into Russia seeking access to warm waters? Only in that people are often reminded that it was the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan that sparked the clash between extremist Islamists and the West, yet one often tends to forget to dig one layer deeper to remember that the Soviet incursion came first.

If Syrian opposition reports are credible, Russia may be once again trying to gain use of warm water ports by "attempting to establish a beachhead in the Mediterranean," according to Farid Ghadry, a Syrian exile who runs a group called the "Reform Party of Syria."

Syria's offer for the Russian navy's use of Tartous and Latakiya would supposedly be in exchange for a pardon of some $10 billion owed to Moscow by Damascus.

Mr. Ghadry, who likes to describe himself as "the Syrian version of Iraq's Ahmad Chalabi," told this correspondent that this time "Syria had crossed the point of no return," by allowing Russia into Middle East politics once again.

Syria's motivation, according to Mr. Ghadry, is to profit from sophisticated air defense systems Russia would deploy around its naval facilities in Syria, a move President Bashar Assad, Mr. Ghadry says, would help protect Syria from an eventual U.S. attack.

Syria rejects the accusations, attributing them as laughable reports. Indeed, the Russians may find they will in time gain access to warm water ports more likely as a result of global warming than anything else.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.