With its victory sealed over Georgia, Russia is starting to make life
uncomfortable for another American ally.
Last week’s two-day meeting in the southern Russian city of Sochi
between Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad and Russia’s President Dimitri Medvedev
is causing Israel no little concern. Syria was the second country after Belarus
to publicly support Russia for its actions in Georgia, and Assad pulled no
punches in backing its former Cold War ally.
“I want to express my support for the Russian position in Abkhazia and
South Ossetia,” said the Syrian president. “…We oppose attempts to tarnish
As his reward, Assad hurried to Russia, his third trip there since
taking power in Syria in 2000, to negotiate an arms deal for the modern weapons
his military so desperately needs. During his visit, he told a Russian
newspaper he intended, above all, to push for armaments purchases. But while a
Russian spokesman admitted weapons sales were a topic of discussion between the
two leaders, no firm commitment was allegedly made.
Medvedev had phoned Olmert before Assad had arrived at the Russian
president’s Black Sea residence, most likely to reassure the Israeli prime
minister about the upcoming meeting. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
said last Thursday his government was prepared to supply Syria only with
“defensive weapons.” Despite Russian assurances, however, Olmert appears to be
to taking no chances and is now planning to travel
to Russia himself in early September.
The reason for Israel’s
that it fears Russia may sell Syria the surface-to-surface Iskander missile.
Israel is still technically in a state of war with Syria, and both Israel and
America believe Syria’s possession of such an advanced weapon would upset the
balance of power in the region, since all of Israel would now be within the new
missile’s striking range. Moreover, unlike the old Scud missiles currently in
the Syrian arsenal, the Iskander is reported to be extremely accurate.
Russia probably regards selling arms to Syria as a form of retribution
against Israel. Moscow was angry Israeli companies, with government approval,
had been training Georgian troops before the war and providing them with
vehicles and explosives. Israel claims, however, it refrained from selling
tanks to Georgia at Russia’s request and hopes Moscow will reciprocate in
respect to any of its requests concerning Syria.
Russia had already concluded a $900 million arms sale agreement with
Syria last year. While it did not include any Iskander missiles, probably due
to Israeli and American warnings, Syria received 50 of the modern Pantsyr-SIE
anti-aircraft missiles. This Syrian purchase is not surprising since, in 2006,
the Israeli air force had humiliated Assad by buzzing his seaside summer house
to pressure Syria and its ally, Hamas, to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit,
whom Hamas had kidnapped.
Israel has good reason, though, to block any Syrian purchase of
conventional Russian armaments, defensive or otherwise, because Syria is a
close ally of Hezbollah, Israel’s enemy in the 2006 Lebanon war. In that
conflict, Israel believes anti-tank missiles Russia had sold earlier to Syria were
then transferred to the Shiite terrorist organization. In Hezbollah’s hands,
they wound up costing an estimated 50 Israeli soldiers their lives.
Currently, Syria’s military consists of aging equipment from the Soviet
era and poses no great threat to Israel’s forces. The Syrian economy is almost
as decrepit as its army, preventing any great modernization program. Along with
last year’s arms sale, Russia also forgave most of Syria’s US $13.4 billon Cold
War debt, which it probably could not repay anyways.
This time round, it is believed Syria will pay for any arms Russia is
willing to sell by granting the Russian navy a base on its Mediterranean coast,
like it did during the Cold War. Moscow had already expressed an interest in
having its navy return to the Mediterranean.
By seeking Russian weapons and inviting Moscow back into the region it
had vacated in 1991, Syria is hoping to offset from the strong,
Israeli-American nexus. European and American pressure had forced Syria to
withdraw from Lebanon in 2004. A revived Kremlin would provide Syria with
leverage in such events and in peace negotiations with Israel. Indirect peace
talks between the two countries are currently underway under Turkish
Syria is also taking advantage of the recent American-Polish
anti-missile agreement, and Russian antagonism, to re-establish a Russian
presence within its borders. In protesting the accord that would see American
missiles based in Poland, Medvedev used perhaps the strongest language of any
Russian leader since the end of the Cold War, saying there will be a military
response. Spotting an opportunity, Syria immediately offered to allow Moscow to
deploy missiles on its territory.
Medvedev was undoubtedly happy that Syria rushed to offer its support to
Russia in the Georgian war, defying Washington’s threatened attempt to isolate
it. In befriending Syria, Russia is continuing its policy of developing relations
with countries that are not part of the perceived American “hegemony”, such as
those that belong to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Russia also
expects SCO support for its Georgian war actions at its meeting
this Thursday in Tajikistan.
But with the Moscow Peace Conference coming up in November, Russia
probably will not make any rash moves involving Syria that could jeopardize its
outcome. Achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace, the subject of the conference,
where so many have failed in the past would be a coup Moscow could not resist,
especially so soon after the Western-led, international condemnation it had
incurred from the Georgian conflict.
Selling arms to dictatorships like Syria is a questionable move for
Russia. Besides making a close American ally nervous, it also calls into
question Syria’s commitment to the current peace talks with Israel. But since
Vladimir Putin made it clear in the Georgian war he intends to follow his own
path internationally, uncomfortable days for American allies have probably just