Earlier this month a scandal broke out when it became known that Moscow was planning to sell Syria the Iskander-E and Igla anti-air missiles (see EDM, January 17). Rumors of this sale prompted first Israel and then America to publicly warn Russia about disturbing the balance in the Middle East. The sale could provide a channel for Syrian-backed Hezbollah terrorists to gain access to these missiles, which could strike all of Israel, including the nuclear complex at Dimona. This outcry caught the Kremlin unaware and not for the first time. Thus on the eve of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s visit to Russia on January 24, Moscow had to back away from the sale, even though it is clear that both Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin had discussed the resumption of Russian arms sales to Syria.
Undoubtedly Assad was chagrined by this failure. He told the media that third parties had no business discussing this issue and that these were purely defensive weapons, not a view Damascus or other Arab capitals adheres to with regard to Israeli arms purchases. At the same time it became clear that he had to get some sort of consolation prize and not leave empty-handed. Apart from strategic significance and the obtuseness of the idea that the sale could benefit Russia at no cost, the transaction had to overcome the problem of Syria’s $14.5 billion in unpaid debts to the Soviet Union. Thus Moscow has had to forgive 73% of that debt ($13.4 billion) when Russia’s own debts to Syria are factored into the equation. A credit line for military purchases was opened, but it is clear that Syria would not have been able to either to pay its debts or actually use its own money to buy Russian weapons. Thus this line of credit is unlikely to become a serious factor. Undoubtedly the international scandal also caused Syria’s potential backers, like Saudi Arabia, to back off.
As a further consolation prize, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized U.S. charges that Syria supports terrorism in Iraq and Lebanon. Since the facts contradict Lavrov, his ploy to register anger at America and make a play for Syria by using rhetoric rather than tangible economic or political chips is unlikely to make a lasting impact in Damascus or other Arab capitals. But, this affair does show how difficult it will be for Putin’s Russia to regain a significant position in the Middle East, as Arab states have wanted.
Equally importantly, Russia’s trade and anti-terrorism ties to Israel and the possibility of lucrative defense deals with Israel involving third parties (e.g. India) makes it difficult for Russia to take the same hard line it did with Israel during the Brezhnev era and to pose as an ally of the Arabs against Israel. Many in Moscow and Syria clearly wish to resurrect that era, since it gives them both added leverage against Washington and enhances Moscow’s claim to be a great power and key member in the “quartet” that is attempting to devise a workable peace plan that it can then impose upon Palestinians and Israel. Yet this episode underscores how unlikely such a restored relationship with Syria, Egypt, or Iraq is.
Russia simply has new and more diverse interests, and it does not have the material resources to challenge the United States on issues of its vital national interests. For example, Russia’s stance on the possibility of the Palestinian Authority’s negotiations with Israel clearly differs from Syria’s, even as they both support Iraq’s integrity. At the same time Syria’s own economic difficulties inhibit its ability to appeal to Moscow to sell it all the items on its wish list: T-72 tanks, MiG-21, MiG-23, and MiG-29 fighters. A third party must subsidize it or else Russia must accept credit, something that has long since vanished as a possibility. Furthermore at a time when Moscow and Washington are close to an agreement on barring MANPADS, shoulder-launched missiles that could take down commercial airliners, the idea of selling similar missiles to a state known to be a sponsor of terrorism makes very little sense even if it bails out what is probably an ailing but important product line in Russia’s defense industry.
This episode is not the first time that a major arms sale to an Arab country has been torpedoed by leaks. Undoubtedly Moscow will want to find out the source of these leaks and stop them, since an impending sale of fourth-generation multi-role fighters (SU-27s) to Algeria was also scuttled in 2004due to leaks. As the Russian press has observed, neither Britain nor Spain was eager to see their control over Gibraltar or the Southern Mediterranean eroded by such a sale. France’s large economic interests in negotiating the sale of its Rafale fighters to Algeria also led it to oppose this del. Thus Syria’s efforts to obtain major military assistance and financial rewards from Russia were largely a failure, as is Moscow’s continuing efforts to reestablish its former position in the Middle East. At the same time these aborted sales will also seriously affect Moscow’s troubled defense industry. How all these forces play out in the future will obviously have repercussions beyond this particular sale to Syria and no less importantly beyond the Middle East.
(Interfax AVN Military News Agency, January 24; Interfax, January 21, 25; Kommersant, January 24; Al-Hayat, London, January 23; Al-Babawa, January 24; Itar-Tass, January 25; RIA-Novosti, January 25; Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, January 21; Voyenno-Promyshlennyi Kuryer, January 19-25).