As the world focuses on Iran’s nuclear program and Russian complex diplomatic dance around it, another aspect of Middle Eastern destabilization tends to be neglected: the flow of advanced Russian weapons to Syria. Not only these weapons may boost Damascus’ aggressiveness, they have fallen in the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas, and may wreak havoc in case of another – and likely – flare-up against these terrorist organizations.
For several years, Russia has been attempting to engage in military cooperation with both Israel and Syria. However, the levels of cooperation with the two states are inversely related, and escalation of arms sales to Syria can only damage the relationship with Israel. Russia-Syria military cooperation has gone through numerous stages: high levels of cooperation during the Soviet era, which was virtually halted until 2005, and presently Russia’s attempt to balance its relationship with both Israel and Syria. However, Russia’s recent eastward leanings might indicate that Moscow is prepared to enter a new stage in its military cooperation with Syria, even to the detriment of its relationship with Israel.
The Middle East by no means constitutes a new market for Russian weapons. The Soviet Union armed the region for decades, serving as a major arms supplier to such states as Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, and Yemen, oftentimes in exchange for mere promises of payment in the future. It was specifically this unpaid debt that led to a halt of weapons sales to Syria after the collapse of the Soviet state. Yet, the years of 1998-1999 marked the resumption of sales of such weapons as AT-14 Kornet-E and Metis anti-tank guided missiles.[i] Despite interest on both sides in increasing weapons sales, unresolved issue of Soviet-era debt prevented any major deals. This obstacle to further development of Russia-Syria relations proved to be a galvanizing force for Russia’s relations with Israel, especially in the area of counter-terrorism.
Though reestablishment of ties between Russia and Syria began as early as 1998, the relationship did not blossom until 2005. In fact, Bashar Assad’s January 2005 visit to Moscow proved to be a turning point as Russia made a decision to write off 73 percent of Syrian debt, which totaled $13.4 billion. Sources in Moscow mentioned that Iran lobbied Russia for Syrian debt to be forgiven, with quid pro quo to materialize in the form of massive Iranian weapons purchases and other contracts.
With the Syrian military in dire need of modernization, and Russian defense industry seeking to reclaim markets for weapons exports, a sale of Strelets air defense missile systems was concluded the same year despite protests from Israel and the United States. The sale of this vehicle-mounted short-range surface-to-air missiles was, in fact, a result of a concession on part of Russia. At the time Putin has indeed denied Syria its request for more robust air defense missiles, such as S-300 and Igla; and for the short-range ballistic missile called Iskander-E. Some analysts opined that Putin showed sensitivity to the security concerns of Israel.[ii]
Syria, in the meantime, was supplying Hezbollah with Russian weapons. In 2006, Israeli forces found evidence of Russian-made anti-tank systems Kornet-E and Metis-M in Hezbollah’s possession in southern Lebanon.[iii] The Russian response to the accusations of supplying terrorist groups with weapons was a February 2007 announcement of that Russia’s military will conduct inspections of Syrian weapons storage facilities with the goal of preventing the weapons from reaching unintended customers.[iv]
Predictably, such developments placed considerable strain on deteriorating Russia-Israel relations. Aggravating the situation are reports of alleged new weapons deals between Russia and Syria. Ostensible is the near-completion of further delivery of Russian anti-tank missiles, the very same models as those found in Hezbollah’s possession in Lebanon. Bringing the issue to the headlines is recent tragic death of Ivan Safronov, respected military correspondent of Kommersant Daily, who claimed to possess indisputable evidence of Russian intensions to sell the modern Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft systems,[v] MiG-29 fighter jets, and Iskander surface-to-air missiles to Syria via Belarus.[vi] Safronov reportedly obtained evidence of a sale at the Middle East arms fair IDEX-2007, the timing of which coincided with Putin’s visit to the Middle East.
While the sale has been denied by Russia, lest it looks guilty of supplying rogue states, director of weapons plant “Kupol,” Sergei Vasilyev, has announced at the fair that three Middle Eastern countries have already purchased Pantsir-C1 systems, though only one customer was named—United Arab Emirates.[vii] There are reasons to believe that Syria is one of “Kupol’s” customers. Such increase in Russian arms sales to Syria prompted immediate Israeli objections. Israel’s Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres called to apply pressure on Moscow to stop the sale of weapons that threaten the security of Israel.[viii]
Russia is engaged in complex relationships in the Middle East. First, it wants its great power status back in an area that is key to the world’s energy security. Just like Andrey Gromyko used to say that no conflict in the world can be resolved against the wishes and without involvement of the Soviet Union, today’s Kremlin rulers aim to become an “indispensable power” East of Suez. Secondly, while Russia has a thriving economic relationship with Israel, and over 1 million of former Soviet citizens reside there, Russia also wants close-nit ties with the Arab world, and weapons sales are the sure-fire way to achieve that. Finally, Russia increasingly views Israel through the prism of its competition with the United States.
All that bodes ill for the Jewish state, especially as its top echelon has provided weak leadership in the last year’s Hizballah war and failed to stop Hamas’s shelling of southern Israel from the evacuated Gaza strip. As Moscow distances itself from the US, the West, and from Israel, peace in the region looks more elusive than ever
[ii] Mark N. Katz, “Putin’s Foreign Policy Toward Syria,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 10, No. 1, pg. 59, March 2006. Iskander Å is the export version of the Kolomna-designed 9M72 short range missile currently in service with the Russian Armed Forces. Iskander-E has a range of 280 km, 120 km less than it’s Russian Army analog, but still sufficient to hit Haifa and Tel Aviv.
[iv] Rosbalt, “Russian Specialists Will Inspect Weapons Storage Facilities in Syria,” February 10, 2007, at http://www.rosbalt.ru/2007/02/10/285860.html
[v] Pantsyr-S1 carries 12 57E6 surface-to-air missiles on launchers. is a close-in air defence system designed to defend ground installations against a variety of weapons including both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, ballistic and cruise missiles, precision-guided munitions and unmanned air vehicles. Its range is from 1km to 12km. It can also engage light-armoured ground targets. It was designed by the KBP Instrument Design Bureau of Tula, Russia. Source: http://www.army-technology.com/projects/pantsyr/
[vi] AFP, “Dead Russian Reporter was Investigating Arms Sales to Iran, Syria,” March 6, 2007, at http://www.france24.com/france24Public/en/administration/afp-news.html?id=070306201334.qse2sfab&cat=france
[vii] KM.ru, “Russian Military Production Complex Conquers Middle East,” February 20, 2007, at http://www.km.ru/magazin/view.asp?id=BE2486A8CB7742639552DBDB5FFE2704
[viii] Haaretz, “Peres Calls for Pushing Moscow to Stop Supplying Arms to Syria,” February 12, 2007, at http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/832616.html
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