Medvedev on landmark visit to Syria

DAMASCUS, Anna Smolchenko- President Dmitry Medvedev arrived on Monday on the first visit by a Russian head of state to Syria, eyeing a revival of the once thriving partnership between the Soviet-era allies.
"The plane has landed," an official with the Russian delegation told AFP on condition of anonymity after Medvedev arrived ahead of a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (left) shakes hands with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev at Al-Shaab presidential palace in Damascus.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (left) shakes hands with Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev at Al-Shaab presidential palace in Damascus.
An AFP reporter said the streets of the Syrian capital were festooned with Russian flags for the landmark two-day visit.
Medvedev was greeted at the presidential palace with full pomp and ceremony before going straight into talks with Assad ahead of an official dinner, Syrian state television reported.
The two leaders are due to meet again on Tuesday before giving a joint news conference.
Before leaving Moscow, Medvedev, who is accompanied by a high-powered delegation focused on the military, said Russia and Syria should develop ties and described Damascus as a key political player in the Middle East.
"We need to speed up multi-dimensional political dialogue," he said in an article for the Syrian daily Al-Watan released by the Kremlin late on Sunday.
He called Damascus "one of the most important political centres of the Middle East" and urged the two countries to develop economic ties, particularly in the hi-tech sector.
Russia seeks to promote itself as a major power in the Middle East and wants to revive ties with old allies with whom relations weakened after the 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union.
"We are looking to regain lost ground with our old friends," a spokesman at the Russian embassy in Damascus told AFP.
Medvedev's visit comes shortly after Washington renewed US sanctions on Syria for a year, accusing it of supporting "terrorist" groups.
Syrian media have welcomed the visit, with government newspaper Tishrin on Monday hailing Russia's "growing role" in the Middle East, especially in the context of Washington's "failure to protect stability and world peace, because of its flagrant bias" towards Israel.
Medvedev's visit "is of exceptional importance," the paper said.
"It reflects Russia's respect for the role Syria has played in promoting regional stability and its support for Syria's position and its right to reclaim the Golan Heights," occupied by Israel in 1967.
Along with the European Union, United Nations and United States, Russia is a member of the international quartet seeking peace in the Middle East and has long lobbied to host a Middle East peace conference.
Analysts say Moscow's influence in the Middle East will largely depend on ties with Syria -- a staunch ally of Iran and the Lebanon's Hezbollah group, and where the Palestinian group Hamas has its political headquarters.
Moscow has close ties with Hamas which the United States considers a terrorist group, and Medvedev is also expected to discuss sanctions against Iran and US pressure on Syria.
"Russia will seek to reduce pressure around Syria," said Alexander Shumilin, head of the Middle East Conflicts Analysis Center at Russia's US and Canada Institute.
Syria, one of the few countries to back Russia in its war with Georgia in 2008, is a major purchaser of its arms.
Sergei Prikhodko, Medvedev's top foreign policy aide, said military cooperation would be on the agenda during the visit.
The Kremlin chief is accompanied to Damascus by the president of Russian warplane maker Irkut, Oleg Demchenko, the head of Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport, Anatoly Isaikin and the head of the Federal Agency for Military Cooperation, Mikhail Dmitriyev.
With gas giant Gazprom keen to expand its presence in the Arab country, energy will also be a major focus of the talks, Prikhodko said, and Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko is also on the trip.
"Gazprom is ready to consider possible participation in projects to develop Syria's oil and gas industry," Prikhodko said. "We are ready to consider a possible project to supply natural gas from Syria to Lebanon."
Russia is also seeking to strengthen relations with Ankara, with Medvedev due to fly to Turkey after Syria to meet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Monday, May 10th 2010
Anna Smolchenko

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