Anna Smolchenko, AFP
Last updated: 25 June, 2012

Putin heads to Middle East amid carnage in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel this week to Israel and Jordan for talks set to be framed by the worsening crisis in Syria that risks sending shockwaves across the entire Middle East.

The centrepieces of the trip are a visit to the Israeli city of Netanya where Putin will Monday unveil a World War II memorial and talks with Israeli leaders, followed by a meeting with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Tuesday.

Putin is also set to unveil a Russian cultural centre in Bethlehem and open a guesthouse for Christian pilgrims in Jordan.

But the visit is seen by analysts as a diplomatic mission as world powers are scrambling for a solution to stop the bloodshed in Syria.

Moscow is keen to promote itself as a major power broker in the Middle East where Putin will travel for the first time since returning to the Kremlin for a historic third term in May.

“This trip is obviously related to the events in Syria which have grown like an avalanche,” said Alexander Filonik, a Middle East expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“It is unclear what trump cards Putin has up his sleeve but the mere fact he’s going speaks volumes,” added Filonik.

The Syrian revolt began in March 2011 with a wave of peaceful protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but has become increasingly militarised over the course of a brutal 15-month crackdown.

Some 15,000 have been killed in Syria since the uprising began.

Moscow and the West have been at loggerheads over the conflict, with the Kremlin refusing to support sanctions against its Soviet-era ally and resisting outside intervention.

The US military said Russia was preparing to deploy three naval ships to Syria where it operates a strategic naval base but Russia has denied having such plans.

“Putin’s visit is aimed at putting out feelers around the Syria situation and how Israel and Jordan would react to the appearance of Russian ships there,” added Alexei Malashenko, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Russia is pushing for an international Syria conference and has already discussed that plan with Jordan which is part of the Arab League as well as the European Union, Iran and Iraq.

Israel and Jordan share a border with Syria and are both affected by the worsening violence there.

Jordan has tightened border controls to prevent Assad’s loyalists from sneaking into the kingdom, and is also struggling to accommodate tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who are draining its meagre water resources.

In Israel, which remains technically at war with Syria, military officials said the unrest in Syria was affecting stability on the strategic Golan Heights plateau, half of which is held by Syria while the other half is occupied by Israel.

“Putin will seek to convince them to support Assad, he wants to find partners in them,” Malashenko said. “He would have to promise them something.”

Russia over the past weeks has distanced itself from Assad but has shown little enthusiasm for regime change there. By contrast, Israeli President Shimon Peres openly said this month he hoped the Syrian rebels “will win” their struggle.

The Arab League has demanded that Russia stop supplying arms to Syria.

Russia confirmed this week its cargo ship was carrying attack helicopters and anti-missile defence systems for Syria but stressed the shipment did not violate international law.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Iranian nuclear crisis are also expected to be on the agenda. Iran and world powers held talks in Moscow this week but failed to edge any closer to a breakthrough.

Putin’s predecessor at the Kremlin, Dmitry Medvedev, visited the West Bank and Jordan last year.