Russia closes deal on $550 million worth of warplanes for Syria

Russia has remained a staunch supporter of Syria's President Assad, blocking UN efforts to impose an international arms embargo. 

Khaled al-Hariri/REUTERS
A picture of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen on a central bank building in Damascus January 23.

Russia has closed a contract to sell half-a-billion dollars worth of warplanes to Syria, just the latest sign that Moscow intends to carry on business-as-usual with the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

According to the Moscow business daily Kommersant, the $550 million contract to purchase 36 Yak-130 Mitten combat trainers was signed in December, even as the 11-month-old uprising against four decades of rule by the Assad family was gathering steam and turning very bloody. According to United Nations estimates, more than 5,400 people have died since March, when the uprising began. 

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov last week dismissed any questions about Russian arms sales to Syria by saying "we don't consider it necessary to explain ourselves or justify ourselves, because we are not violating any international agreements or any [UN] Security Council resolutions."

The European Union approved an arms embargo on Syria last year. The UN Security Council has sought to do the same, but has been blocked by Russia, which has veto power. 

Experts say Russia has felt badly burned by Western-sponsored sanctions against selected Middle East regimes, which have cost Moscow some of its most lucrative customers, even as the US continues to negotiate huge arms sales to its own regional clients -- including recent deals worth $60 billion to Saudi Arabia and $3.5 billion to the United Arab Emirates.

According to the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade (CAWAT), Russia lost as much as $4.5 billion in broken weapons deals with Muammar Qaddafi's Libya and another $13 billion as a result of UN Security Council-approved sanctions that forced Moscow to cancel all its major arms contracts with Iran.

Russia is thought to have up to $5 billion in potential arms exports to Syria in the pipeline, including sales of warships, submarines, modern T-90 tanks, MiG-29 fighters, and Iskander-E tactical missiles.

"We have already made many shameful concessions to the West. Under pressure we refused to fulfill contracts we had duly signed and thus found ourselves in a humiliating situation," says Viktor Baranets, a former Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, who is now a columnist with the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda.

"Russia's image was at stake, but we displayed weak will in the cases of Libya and Iran," he says. "Now we see the same script unfolding in Syria. The chain reaction of these so-called Arab spring revolutions will go on, they will manage to suppress Iran, and the world will turn its head into the direction indicated by the leader, the USA."

Kommersant cited a source close to the state arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, as saying production of the Yak-130s will begin at a Siberian factory as soon as a Syrian deposit on the deal is received.

The Yak-130 is Russia's most modern fighter/trainer, and experts say it can easily be converted to a combat role.

"Yak-130s are basically flying school desks, and 36 of these planes will hardly change the strategic situation in the region," says Igor Korotchenko, director of CAWAT. "But they are means to prepare pilots to fly modern planes, and so the Yak-130 serves as a preparation link which could lead to further sales of Russian light fighter bombers, such as the MiG-29 and possibly the MiG-35."

The political significance of the deal is that "Moscow has apparently put its stakes on the capacity of Syrian regime to settle its internal problems and stay in power," says Mr. Korotchenko. "After all, who would sign contracts with a regime they didn't think was going to last?"

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