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11 May, 2010 12:14

Moscow, Damascus unanimous on nuke-free Middle East

The presidents of Russia and Syria have agreed that the Middle East should be a nuclear-free region since any other scenario may lead to “a regional or probably even global catastrophe,” Dmitry Medvedev said.

“We are unanimous with my counterpart, the Syrian president, that the Middle East should become a nuclear-free zone, a nuclear-free region, because any other development may mean a regional and probably global catastrophe,” he told a media conference after the talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

Medvedev is currently on an official visit – the first ever by a Russian president – to the Arab republic, intending to revive once-flourishing relations with the old Soviet ally and, also, an important player in the Middle East region. Business matters aside, the two leaders could not skip such issues of global importance as international security.

In a joint statement signed following today’s meeting in the Syrian capital, the presidents urged Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state and bring its nuclear facilities under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“Present-day challenges to international security, connected in particular with the threat of the circulation of nuclear materials and their getting into the hands of non-government entities, must be removed on the basis of the Non-Proliferation Treaty,” the document reads as quoted by Itar-Tass agency. The presidents also stressed that “the sides will coordinate their efforts and contribute to turning the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems.”

Whether this idea can become a reality is yet a big question since Israel – backed by Washington – is not going to review its position that stands for neither confirming nor denying having nuclear arms.

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak confirmed Israel will keep up to its policy of deliberate ambiguity over its nuclear program.

“There is no threat to our position,” he said, “Israel has deep understandings with the US… the main focus of all disarmament talks is Iran and North Korea, in particular Iran; there is no threat to the traditional understandings between Israel and the US,” Barak said as quoted by The Jerusalem Post. He also added that there was no risk that IAEA observers would get permission to inspect the Dimona nuclear reactor.

While visiting Damascus, President Medvedev, together with his Syrian counterpart, met with the Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. He called for the quick release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Hamas militants in 2006.

The Russian president also called for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah in order to strengthen Palestinian national unity, which could help move forward the stalled Middle East peace process.

Political analyst Salama Nemaat says the president's visit is a constructive contribution toward Middle East peace.

“The Russian president is giving political legitimacy to an organization that is considered a terrorist organization at least by the State Department and the European Union,” Nemaat told RT. “So it is a big deal and it’s making a statement. It’s very provocative for many people, especially in Washington.”

Damascus hopes Moscow will help in convincing US and Israel

Syria expressed hope that Moscow will help convince Israel to get back to the negotiating table.

“We see Russia's role from two angles,” the Syrian leader said answering Interfax’s question. “First, it should convince the Israeli leadership, which we think has not become a reliable partner in the talks, to demonstrate a more constructive position and get back to the negotiating table seriously.”

“We also count on Russia's efforts to persuade the American administration to demonstrate a truly responsible and serious approach to what concerns the Middle East peace process,” he said. Bashar al-Asad added that, unfortunately, they have not seen Washington “participating in the negotiation process in earnest, or making every effort to get it restarted and promoted.”

The situation in the Middle East has always been rather complicated and bringing peace and stability to the region is indeed not an easy task with all parties involved pursuing their own interests and having their own idea of what is right and wrong.

Relations between Syria and Israel for years – after the Six Day War in 1967 – have been shadowed by a territorial dispute over the Golan Heights. Israeli President Shimon Peres said Tuesday that Tel Aviv is ready to sign a peace agreement with Damascus, but is not going to give the plateau back.

Addressing students at the Moscow State University of International Relations (MGIMO), he said that authorities in Damascus need to understand that it is impossible to demand that Israel withdraws from the territory, which would enable them to place Hezbollah's arsenal of thousands of missiles there, Interfax writes. According to him, Israel does not want that a similar situation to the one that emerged after Israeli forces left the Gaza Strip and Lebanon repeated.

As for the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, Peres said that a solution to the conflict based on the “two states for two nations" principle is supported by the majority of population of Israeli and Arabic states.

“One state where two nations would live mixed together will only make this conflict last forever,” he said.

Iran’s right to peaceful atom

Iran’s nuclear program – which the international community fears may lead to the creation of an atomic bomb – was also discussed by Medvedev and Bashar al-Asad. The two have urged the Islamic Republic to follow non-proliferation rules and called for a diplomatic solution to the problem. Notably, both Moscow and Damascus recognize “Iran’s right for the development of civil nuclear power engineering under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

“Our views were that all countries have a right to possess peaceful nuclear power, and the necessity to free the Middle East from all weapons of mass destruction,” Bashar al-Asad said as cited by Syrian Arab News Agency SANA. According to the president, sanctions complicate rather than ease a solution to the problem and stressed the need to continue dialogue between “Iran and the Group of Six countries.”

From global issues to bilateral relations

Russia and Syria have agreed to strengthen the “strategic component” of their relations, Medvedev told a media conference.

“Despite the crisis, our trade and economic relations are on the line of ascent,” he added, Itar-Tass quotes. The Russian leader said that he discussed with his Syrian counterpart projects in the oil and gas sector as well as transport, electric power industry and nuclear power engineering, which, according to the president, “may get a second wind.” The two have also had a look at prospects for cooperation in science, space technologies and tourism.

President Asad said that they “discussed the prospect of setting up a council for strategic interaction.”

“Our foreign ministers will be in charge of this work and they will formulate proposals and submit them to the two presidents,” he explained.

Following the official function, the presidents strolled a bit into town and Asad told Medvedev about the history of Damascus. The Russian leader – known for being a keen photographer – took several snaps with his personal camera.

Natalia Makarova, RT

Read also: Syria seeks opportunities to "exert pressure" on Israel