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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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