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Syria eyes an edge amid Russia-U.S. rift

Damascus is seeking an arms deal with Moscow, a move that would bolster its position in the Middle East.

By Correspondent / August 28, 2008

Closer ties? Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (l.) met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Aug. 21.

Ria Novosti/AP

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When Russian forces crossed into South Ossetia and Georgia, Syria was one of the few countries to voice support for Moscow's actions in the Caucasus as the West was busy condemning the invasion.

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The growing rift between Russia and the United States over Georgia promises to be a golden opportunity for Damascus as it seeks a weapons deal with Moscow – an agreement that would give it greater leverage in tentative peace talks with Israel and bolster its standing in the Middle East.

"Syria saw a lot of opportunity in what happened in Georgia and South Ossetia to advance its own interests in the [region]," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst and historian.

Indeed, if the US-Russia rift continues to widen, Moscow could start building greater ties with Washington's Middle East foes.

Although Syria's isolation has crumbled in recent years, Damascus remains deeply at odds with Washington over a host of issues: support for Islamist militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, the war in Iraq, and its relationship with Iran.

Syria nonetheless has made a diplomatic comeback in recent months through a carefully calculated balance of patience, stubbornness, and flexibility. Forced into a troop withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Syria has seen its Lebanese allies make gains despite the fact that a US-backed political bloc holds a majority in parliament.

Also, Syria has managed to balance its key strategic relationship with Iran against a resumption of indirect peace talks with Israel.

"Syria is keeping its options open," says Andrew Tabler, a Damascus-based analyst on Syria.

Syria may have sniffed another opportunity to leverage regional advantage when fighting erupted between Russia and Georgia earlier this month.

While Russia has signaled a new determination to impose its will on its immediate neighbors, it is too soon to tell whether Moscow intends to increase its influence in the Middle East as well.

The Soviet Union was once Syria's main weapons supplier, leaving Damascus saddled with a $13.4 billion arms-sales debt at the end of the cold war in 1990. In 2005, Russia wrote off almost three quarters of the debt, launching a new era of improved cooperation and fresh arms deals.

Damascus has its eyes on Russia's advanced antiaircraft and antitank missile systems that in Syria's hands could pose a threat to Israel's aerial and armored dominance. According to a Russian diplomat quoted last week by Russia's Interfax news agency, Syria is interested in acquiring the BUK M1 and Pantsyr S1 antiaircraft missile systems.