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.
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In April, the Russia-supported autonomous republic of Abkhazia inside Georgia reportedly used the BUK M1 system to shoot down an Israeli-made Hermes reconnaissance drone operated by the Georgian military. The BUK and Pantsyr systems are far more advanced than Syria's current air defense assets, most of which were bought from the Soviet Union in the 1980s.Skip to next paragraph
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The ease with which Israeli jets penetrated Syrian airspace a year ago to bomb a suspected nuclear facility in northeast Syria underlined to Damascus the need for an improved air defense system.
During a visit to Russia last week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that "arm purchases are very important for Syria." And potential arms deals topped the agenda in his talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Acquiring Russian armaments also could strengthen Syria's hand as it negotiates a peace deal with Israel. President Assad was quoted recently as saying that the next round of indirect talks planned for next week in Istanbul would prove "decisive." Success is by no means certain, however, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Monday dampened expectations, saying "unfortunately, there has not been enough progress for the talks to become direct."
Syria also has to calculate that the process may yet fall victim to the leadership crisis in Israel following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's announcement that he is stepping down.
"If the Syrians purchase Russian arms, that can be an additional pressure card for the peace talks taking place in Turkey," says Mr. Moubayed, the Syrian political analyst. "Let's not forget that the Syrians have no guarantees as to what might happen after Olmert leaves in September."
Israel has eyed Syria's ambition of acquiring Russian weapons with unease, fearing the erosion of its military edge. Furthermore, there is a suspicion in Israel that weapons systems obtained by Syria could end up in the hands of Hezbollah. The Shiite militant group used advanced Russian antitank missiles to deadly effect against Israeli armored vehicles during the 2006 war. The Lebanese group is believed to be seeking new air defense weapons systems to counteract regular Israeli incursions in Lebanon.
But Russia is likely to impose limits on the variety of weapons it sells to Syria. Russian sources denied reports last week that Damascus was hoping to acquire Iskander ballistic missiles that could threaten almost all of Israel. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow was willing to supply the Syrians with "defensive weapons which are not breaking the regional balance of power."
Russia's relationship with Israel has improved since the end of the cold war, not least because of the large influx of Russian emigrants to the Jewish state from the early 1990s.
When fighting broke out in South Ossetia, Israel was quick to reassure Russia that it was freezing military sales to Georgia. Mr. Olmert is to visit Moscow shortly to reaffirm bilateral ties and discourage Russia from providing weapons to Syria.
Still, improved ties with Syria has its uses for Moscow. As a potential major arms supplier to Syria, Moscow would gain influence in the Middle East as a counterweight to the US. Also, Moscow and Damascus have been mulling the possibility of building a Russian naval base in Tartous on Syria's Mediterranean coastline, granting the Russians a key warm-water facility.