On February 8 Tajikistan’s President Imomali Rakhmonov held bilateral meetings with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Rakhmonov was in Damascus as part of his current tour of the Middle East, which is aimed at encouraging economic relations between Tajikistan and the Arab world. However, his arrival in Syria and willingness to explore relations with Middle Eastern countries adds a new and unpredictable element to the calibration of Dushanbe’s foreign policy. Syria’s entry into Central Asian geopolitics will also supply Assad with an opportunity to counteract U.S. criticism of his regime. Assad made the most of the visit, which witnessed a twenty-one-gun salute fired in honor of Syria’s guest.
Discussions seemed driven by Assad’s agenda, including the Middle East peace process, the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as Iraq, with attention also given to combating terrorism and the importance of the work of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Assad presented himself as sympathetic to the plight of the weak Central Asian state, expressing concern about the challenges of international terrorism. The developing friendship and cooperation between Syria and Tajikistan concentrated mostly on economic issues and scientific and technical cooperation. Rakhmonov emphasized that his “visit to Syria will open wide prospects of cooperation in all domains particularly in the parliamentary field” (SANA News Agency, Damascus, February 8). Does he also foresee security cooperation?
Reporting within Tajikistan largely ignored the possible controversy surrounding the political talks, highlighting instead the signing of seven bilateral documents. These included agreements on cooperation in the sphere of culture, economic, scientific and technical cooperation, protection of investments; promoting tourism; a memorandum of mutual understanding that allows both countries to share information and a memorandum of mutual understanding on bilateral consultations between their foreign ministries.
“Both sides expressed their interest in opening a new chapter in bilateral economic relations and noted that the enhancement of ties in the spheres of power engineering and infrastructure, light industry, construction, extraction and processing of non-ferrous metals and of precious stones, setting up of joint jewelry enterprises and tourism will serve the interests of both countries. The establishment and development of extensive scientific and cultural links was named as a priority area of cooperation,” Abdufattoh Sharipov, the Tajik presidential press secretary said.
Interestingly, Rakhmonov reportedly shared a similar stance on many of the views expressed by Assad. In particular, he commented, “We are against the strengthening of military confrontation and the use of force in the settlement of regional conflicts and we are supporters of the political settlement of disputes on the basis of international standards” (Asia-Plus, February 8). Although the sentiment was rather general, Assad could interpret it as an expression of support for his own stance on the potential use of force by the U.S. to resolve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Similar agreements were signed on cooperation with Egypt during the Tajik leader’s visit to Cairo on February 4. Topics included economic cooperation, science and technology, culture, education and combating organized crime. Rakhmonov’s talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak examined regional and international security concerns, but did not evoke any negative comment. Instead, they were more focused on developing economic links, which are currently at low levels.
Rakhmonov favors, “The strengthening and development of friendly relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt, which is one of the cradles of human civilization and simultaneously one of the most influential countries in the Arab and Islamic world, is one of the important areas of Tajikistan’s regional and international policy.” Moreover, the Tajik leader suggested that a legal basis should established in order to place relations with Egypt within a definable framework. He also wants permanent embassies established in each capital, as part of his efforts to secure greater bilateral interaction. Rakhmonov and Mubarak envisage cooperating in the political, cultural, and humanitarian areas and believe their efforts to counter contemporary threats requires interaction within existing regional and international organizations, including the UN and the OIC (Itar-Tass, February 4; Avesta, February 6).
On February 5 Tajikistan’s Khovar national news agency, under the Tajik government, began distributing news in Arabic, widely publicized as part of Rakhmonov’s initiative to promote cultural ties between Tajikistan and Arabic-speaking countries. There are also plans to create a television channel that will broadcast in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The Tajik authorities are processing an application to allow a new women’s NGO to be registered in Tajikistan, with offices in Afghanistan and Iran, aimed at promoting the rights of women in these countries and boosting cultural ties (Avesta, February 7).
Dushanbe’s interest in forming links with the wider Arab world brings into play some of the security agendas more commonly pursued in the Middle East. Although its bilateral cooperation with Egypt and Syria are most likely to center on economic cooperation, Damascus may utilize this inroad into Central Asia as a means of garnering wider support for its anti-U.S. foreign policy. Dushanbe, on the other hand may trigger interest in the OIC and look to Arab countries for potential security information. These contacts are unlikely to precipitate deepening security cooperation with these states, but Damascus could use its growing relations with Tajikistan as a platform to broadcast its own political views of the regional and international security situation. Rakhmonov may well have underestimated the risks involved in his entanglement with Damascus.