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Putin's Syrian Gamble By: Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to sign an arms agreement during his visit to Russia this week have been met with heated denials from Moscow. Mikhail Margelov, a confidante of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has said of the rumors: “Its tantamount to us [Russia] announcing a sale of a Lenin ice-breaker to Bahrain,” while Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov has insisted, “There are no talks underway between Russia and Syria” concerning missile shipments.

Although Russia continues to deny it has plans to sell its new SS-26 Iskander-E ballistic missile and advanced Igla SA-18 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile to Syria, Assad’s visit with Putin will almost certainly include discussions concerning future arms deals between the two regimes, a fact which has caused great concern amongst U.S. and Israeli officials—and understandably so.  

Both the SS-26 and SA-18 are dangerous weapons that pose an immediate threat to U.S. and Israeli forces in the Middle East. The SS-26 is a highly mobile missile that uses satellite guidance systems to attain maximum accuracy. With a range of 180 miles, it can carry a 1,000-pound warhead to most targets inside Israel, including the nuclear reactor site outside Dimona. Even more deadly and threatening than the SS-26, the SA-18 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile uses its enhanced seeker to hit aerial targets, such as jet fighters, head-on.

For the time being, Russia has complied with U.S. and Israeli requests to halt the sale of the SS-26 and SA-18 missiles to Syria. The Bush administration, for its part, has threatened sanctions against Russia if the sale is completed. And Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, viewing the potential sale as a threat to national security, met recently with the heads of the Israeli military and intelligence communities to discuss what was termed as a “very classified problem.” Sharon recognizes that, among other frightening scenarios, terrorist groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas could use hi-tech weapons supplied by Syria to strike Israel from South Lebanon, the West Bank or Gaza.

But anyone who thinks Russia will give up the estimated $2 billion arms sale to Syria for the sake of being called a “friend of Israel” or the U.S. is sadly mistaken. In its quest for new weapons markets, Russia will undoubtedly explore other avenues for direct or indirect delivery of the missiles to Syria. For instance, in April 2003, the Israeli daily Maa’riv reported that Hezbollah had acquired a batch of the same SA-18 missiles from Russia after similar protests from Israel and the U.S.

Arguments by some in the Arab press that the introduction of Russian missiles poses no “new or substantial threats” and leaves the balance of power between Israel and Syria unchanged are patently misleading. Syria already possesses a robust capability to strike deep into Israel with the largest surface-to-surface missile force in the Arab world. As of 2003, Syria had a combined total of several hundred Scud and SS-21 SRBMs [short-range ballistic missiles] able to reach much of Israel. So why the need for new missiles?

Simply put, in Assad’s view, Syria will never have enough firepower at its disposal to wage its unofficial war with Israel and the West. The new missiles will only expand upon an already vast inventory that may become readily available to members of Hamas and Hezbollah. What will the Arab press say in the ghastly event that terrorists use a Syrian-supplied SA-18 missile to shoot down a commercial airliner, causing the loss of hundreds of innocent lives?

As a result of the potential Syrian/Russian arms deal, announcements in late 2004 by Assad that he was willing to engage in peace talks with Israel “without preconditions” seem now—like similar proclamations in the past—to be pure fantasy. Moreover, promises made by Assad in 2003 to former Secretary of State Colin Powell to remove known terrorist offices from Damascus are a distant memory. Combine all this with Assad’s continued support for the insurgency in Iraq, and the young dictator has removed any U.S. or Israeli incentive to work with him towards a lasting peace.

Assad is neither a smart nor cautious man: That much he has proven. He is, however, a dangerous adventurist, prone to overstatement and outlandish assurances. His promises to undertake a variety of economic, administrative and political reforms at home have gone largely unfulfilled. The Golan Heights issue aside, troubling issues such as water rights, border sovereignty and a rivalry with neighboring Turkey remain unresolved. In addition, Assad is the patriarch of an oil-based economy where oil production and output are shrinking. As a result, his country is more vulnerable than ever to outside influences like Russia and Iran, which have promised loans and capital investment for Syrian cooperation.

Under Assad, the Syrian government continues to engage in counterfeiting, violations of UN sanctions, and the repression of democratic reforms. Syria also continues to harbor Saddamist war criminals and evidence of Iraqi WMD.

As for Russia, if its decision to sell missiles to Syria is a way to get back at the U.S. and Israel for their support of Ukrainian President-elect Victor Yushchenko, it is playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse.

Vladimir Putin is gaining a dubious reputation as a Soviet-style despot due to his persistent meddling in the internal affairs of foreign countries, derailment of democratic reforms and confrontation of the West. The Syrian episode is no different. Russia’s ongoing work with Tehran on the Bushehr nuclear facility in the face of increasing international pressure provides another example of the Putin’s deceitful foreign policy. Yet, just as he did in Ukraine, Putin has badly miscalculated the current Middle East situation, believing—wrongly—that Europe’s impotence and the U.S.’s. preoccupation with Iraq would allow his country to make economic and political headway in a region it once dominated.

Just last week, Russian defense officials stated that military strikes against terrorists could not be ruled out. If this policy statement is applied by Israel and the U.S. to Syria, a chief sponsor of terrorism, should not both countries be allowed to preemptively attack Syria to stop terrorists from using any new, Russian-supplied missiles? If these weapons do indeed arrive in Syria, the U.S. and Israel should give serious consideration to a pre-emptive military strike before innocent U.S. and Israeli lives are lost.

But as it stands, the U.S. and Israel should consider taking decisive, coordinated diplomatic action to send an unmistakable message to both Syria and Russia that such behavior will not be tolerated. Similarly, the UN Security Council and in particular, EU members Germany, France and Britain should use their influence to insist that such blatant regional incitement cease to be a part of Russian foreign policy. Lacking such united action, a showdown with Damascus similar to those with Iran and North Korea is virtually inevitable.  

Fred Stakelbeck is a Senior Asia Fellow with Washington-based Center for Security Policy. He is an expert on the economic and national security implications for the U.S. of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence. Comments can be forwarded to Frederick.Stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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