While international jetsetters may shop for expensive caviar in Moscow, Middle Eastern dictatorships like Syria are more likely to buy less flashy items - like anti-aircraft missiles.
And an ever obliging Russia, now one of the world’s biggest arms merchants, lived up to its reputation and made sure to keep a good customer happy by delivering last Monday the first of fifty such deadly, air warfare weapons to its former Cold War ally. Called the Pantsyr-S1E, the missiles are part of a $900 million arms sale agreement signed earlier this year between the two countries that may also come to involve, according to one Russian newspaper, the sale to Syria of advanced fighter planes.
Israel, naturally, is probably looking with great unease at the delivery of still yet another modern Russian weapons system into the hands of a hostile neighbor, with whom it has been technically at war since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Ten of the purchased missiles, one report stated, are “extremely accurate at short range.”
Last year, the Jewish state accused Russia of selling anti-tanks missiles to Syria that were then transferred to Hezbollah and used against Israeli tanks in the 34-day Lebanon war, causing, it is estimated, 50 Israeli deaths. So not unnaturally, the current fear is that, like with the anti-tank weapons, some of the missiles could again be diverted, but this time to Iran, most likely for use against any American and Israeli air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
The origin of the Syrian missile purchase lies in the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Assad saw himself as the next target for regime change by either the American army, now stationed on his border, or by the Israelis. Syria is an ally of such very anti-American and anti-Israeli entities as Hezbollah, Hamas (the Hamas leadership is Damascus-based) and Iran; it has also been accused in the past by US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, among others, of state-sponsored terrorism and of undermining the American effort in Iraq, all of which has served to put the Damascus regime in American and Israeli gun sites. But the outdated and decrepit, Soviet-armed, Syrian forces, as Assad well knows, would be no match for the American and Israeli militaries in any conflict.
An Israeli air raid in October, 2003, the deepest Israeli raid into Syria in thirty years, emphasized Syrian military vulnerability to external threats. Israeli warplanes buzzed the presidential palace and blasted a terrorist training camp near Damascus in retaliation for a suicide bombing of an Israeli restaurant. (Last summer, Israeli jet fighters also buzzed Assad’s coastal summer home to pressure Syria and Hamas to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas had kidnapped. Assad, it was reported, was at home and was furious with the raid. Syrian defense against the Israeli intruders, according to Syrian television, consisted solely of anti-aircraft gunfire.)
The basis for this week’s arms delivery was probably laid during Assad’s visit to Moscow in 2005. While there, the Syrian president defended his country’s right to purchase anti-aircraft missiles, saying they were “for air defense, meant to prevent aircraft from intruding into our airspace.” During his visit, Moscow forgave most of Syria’s US $13.4 billion dollar debt from the Soviet era, which its economy, decrepit as its military, probably could not repay anyways. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the debt’s abrogation allowed for “opportunities for long-term cooperation”, a euphemism, as we have seen this week, for irresponsible arms sales.
For its part, Russia’s weapons sales to Syria are part of its plan to reclaim the great power status it lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Putin confirmed this when he announced last July Russia’s return to superpower status at a fiftieth anniversary celebration of a military missile launching site near Archangel. The Russian president backed up his announcement afterwards with a series of moves, indicating renewed Russian strength, which drew international attention. The most controversial was the resumption of flights by nuclear missile-armed, long-range, Russian bombers along America’s Alaskan coast and over American-held Guam after a hiatus of fifteen years.
Less noticed, however, was the announcement in early August by Russia’s chief admiral, Vladimir Massorin, that his country wants its own fleet in the Mediterranean again. Military experts say a base for such a fleet would probably be located in Syria where the Russians had one in Soviet times and where the Syrians would welcome their presence again as a counterweight to American and Israeli pressures.
Also as part of that renewed claim to great power status, like in Soviet times, Russia is showing its willingness to arm countries that are anti-American, such as Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, the Sudan and Syria. The Kremlin sees this as countering “American hegemony”, which it believes has reached its own borders in the form of former Soviet states that have joined NATO. But in following the old, Soviet pattern, Russia unfortunately seems to have learned nothing from the much unlamented fate of the Soviet Union and is again plotting a course that will wind up costing her and her people much more than the price of 50 anti-aircraft missiles.