Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 151

The Syrian government this week signaled its unhappiness over what it alleged was the purpose of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s August 2 visit to Moscow. Syria’s state-run radio on August 3 charged that Barak’s visit to the Russian capital was aimed not at boosting the Middle East peace process, as had been claimed by Israeli government sources, but at stopping Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran. “Barak went to Moscow to put pressure on the Russian capital and to convince it to stop its cooperation with Syria and others so Syria becomes a weak country that could be blackmailed,” the radio said. It claimed, in addition, that during a visit to Washington last month Barak had tried to convince American officials to limit the diplomatic role played by Moscow in the Middle East peace negotiations. Syrian state run radio reflects the views of the Syrian government (Reuters, August 4).

Russian and Israeli accounts of Barak’s talks in Moscow, which admittedly provided few details, offered little to substantiate the charges leveled by Damascus. Although Israeli sources were quoted prior to Barak’s arrival in Moscow as saying that the recently elected prime minister intended to raise the question of proposed Russian arms sales to Syria, there was scant mention of that topic in reports that followed the Moscow talks. Those same reports did underline that Barak had raised the issue of illicit Russian defense technology transfers to Iran and–somewhat surprisingly–to Iraq. But there were suggestions that Barak had not put the same sort of tough emphasis on alleged shortcomings in Russia’s arms export control regime as both Israeli and U.S. government officials have in the past (see the Monitor, August 3).

For many months now reports have been published in Russia suggesting that Moscow is on the verge of signing a package of arms sales agreements with Syria worth perhaps as much as US$2 billion. The key obstacle to finalizing the arms deal was said to be an inability by the two sides to resolve differences over financing. Syria currently owes Russia some US$12 billion in debts rung up as a result of arms purchases made during the Soviet period. In the interests of reestablishing a presence in the Middle East, Moscow was reported to be ready to gloss over the question of debt repayments during a hastily arranged visit to Moscow by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in early July. The visit, not surprisingly, followed Barak’s election victory and some early optimism that it would restore momentum to the moribund Middle East peace process. That optimism has been dampened somewhat of late, and the Russian press has had little to say in recent weeks about the status of the Russian-Syrian arms talks.