A projected billion-dollar arms sale to Syria is the latest sign of a major shift in Russia's Middle East policy -- and analysts are asking how dangerous it might be for regional stability and for Israel.
In what they see as an ongoing bid to regain its lost global influence, Russia -- like the former Soviet Union -- has been developing regional ties as a counterweight to American influence in the Middle East, analysts say.
Israeli leaders are concerned that a Russian axis including Syria, Turkey and Iran could make peacemaking with the Palestinians and regional accommodation more difficult. Moreover, they say, the supply of missiles to Syria and nuclear technology to Iran constitutes a direct military threat to Israel.
Over the past year or so, partly as a consequence of the war in Iraq, analysts say Russia has been carefully cultivating ties with Turkey, Iran and Syria. After losing the Mideast foothold provided by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, they say the Russians have been building a new axis of power based on those three key countries.
Russia is now Turkey's second-largest trading partner after Germany, with a volume of $10 billion in trade per year. It has cemented ties with Iran by building the nuclear reactor at Bushehr and supplying other nuclear-related technologies. And now it is contemplating bringing Syria more closely into the Russian orbit by selling it surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles.
Amnon Sela, an expert on Russia at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, maintains that the shift in Russian policy stems from a strategic decision by President Vladimir Putin to reassert Russian independence from the West.
Though the most important countries for Russia in this regard are China, Japan and India, Sela says the Muslim world provides another clear opening for the projection of Russian influence.
Sela fears Russia's moves in the Middle East could seriously destabilize the region. But he's convinced that if challenged, Putin will stop at the brink rather than burn his bridges to the West.
According to Israeli intelligence, the Russian offer to supply Syria with Iskandar-E (SS-26) surface-to-surface missiles and Strella (SA-18) anti-aircraft rockets has been on the agenda for several months. A deal might well be struck during Syrian President Bashar Assad's visit to Moscow this week.
The Iskandar, which can carry a payload of more than 1,000 pounds, is said to be far more accurate than the Scud missiles Syria now has. With a range of 170 miles, it could reach any target in Israel.
But Israeli defense experts are said to be more concerned about the Strella, which could fall into terrorist hands and could be used against civilian aircraft.
Israeli appeals to Russia to drop the possible sale seem to have had little effect. In a telephone call to Putin on Thursday, Jan. 20, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon argued that not only would the Russian weapons constitute a direct military threat but -- because the Syrians are deeply involved in promoting Palestinian terrorism -- encouraging Syrian meddling could undermine Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to curb violence and restart peace talks.
Putin did not respond, Israeli officials say.
The shift in the Russian position seems to have taken most Israeli officials by surprise. As part of its Cold War with the United States, the Soviet Union had taken an uncompromisingly anti-Israel stance, but after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Israel's ties with the successor Russian Federation advanced by leaps and bounds.
The immigration to Israel of more than 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union helped promote trade and cultural ties. In the late 1990s Sharon, then foreign minister, even hinted briefly at a possible pro-Russian tilt in Israeli diplomacy.
But, in late 2003 hints of a change in Russia's attitude to Israel started to surface. During a visit to Moscow in November that year, Sharon urged his "close friend" Putin not to submit the "road map" peace plan to the U.N. Security Council. Putin ignored him.
Ten months later, during a visit to Israel, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov surprised his hosts by drawing a sharp distinction between Chechen and Palestinian terrorism and denying that Russia was cooperating with Israel against international terrorism, though the Israelis said they were.
Last December, Putin himself, in what he afterward claimed was a slip of the tongue, used the word "Zionist" in a pejorative sense, accusing Ukranian presidential candidate Viktor Yuschenko of resorting to "anti-Russian and Zionist slogans."
Then, in early January, news broke of the projected missile sale to Syria.
A few weeks later, the Soviet Foreign Ministry made its clearest statement yet against American policy in the Middle East and Washington's definition of Syria as a state that supports terrorism.
"It's well-known that slapping labels on countries and unilaterally describing certain states as part of the 'axis of evil' has not improved anyone's security," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko told the Interfax news agency. "Syria is one of the key players in the region and resumption of talks with Israel on the Syrian question is important in the context of the Middle East peace process."
The Russian shift is even more disconcerting for Israel because of its implications for Moscow's relationship with Iran. A senior Israeli official told JTA that diplomatic efforts to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons could succeed only if supported by Russia, which seemed increasingly unlikely.
Israeli analysts believe U.S. Vice President Cheney's recent comments that Israel could contemplate attacking Iran's nuclear program probably were as much calculated to spur Russia and the European Union to take effective diplomatic action before it is too late as they were a warning to Israel.
For Israel the stakes are high -- Iranian nuclear power, potential Syrian and terrorist missile threats, strategic relations with Turkey and Palestinian terrorism.
To counter the new Russian diplomacy, analysts say Israel will have to find the right mix of backing from Washington, representations to Moscow, reassurances to Ankara and peace overtures to Damascus. But with Russia again in the Arab corner and on the lookout for niches of influence, it could prove increasingly difficult.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.