Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 7

For Russia, the possible consequences of such a development are obvious. The ability to provide Syria with advanced military hardware is one of the few cards which Moscow is able to play in its effort to increase Russian influence in Damascus–and, by extension, throughout the region. Syrian purchases of Russian weaponry have likewise been touted by Russian arms export officials as a potential bonanza for Russia’s defense enterprises. A special Syrian-U.S. defense arrangement, in other words, (which might parallel the one which Washington and Egypt developed following the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979) could both decrease Moscow’s leverage in Damascus and deprive Russia’s cash-starved arms makers of a package of lucrative contracts.

Indeed, Russian-Syrian negotiations have progressed for some time now on an arms deal said to be worth in the area of US$2 billion. The two countries appeared to move closer toward finalizing that deal–which reportedly includes the purchase by Syria of advanced Russian fighters, T-80 tanks and antitank and anti-aircraft weapons–during a rare foreign visit which Syrian President Hafez Assad made to Moscow last July. The visit came amid a resumption of the Middle East peace process following Barak’s election in May. In mooting the arms deal with Russia and seeking Moscow’s support for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, Assad was clearly hoping to strengthen Syria’s hand in the expected future negotiations with Israel (New York Times, July 5; AP, July 6; see the Monitor, July 8, 1999). In fact, when Barak followed Assad to Moscow for talks of his own with then President Boris Yeltsin on August 2, Russian officials pressed upon the Israeli leader Moscow’s desire to play a role in mediating between Israel and Syria. Barak reportedly rebuffed the offer (Ha’aretz, August 3).

Russia and Syria, moreover, have apparently still not finalized their proposed arms package. At earlier stages of negotiation at least, the problem appeared to be in large part a financial one. Syria is some US$12 billion in debt to Moscow, and the Russian Finance Ministry has apparently lobbied for the Russian government to tie any financing of the arms deal to an acceptable agreement on repayment of the Syrian debt. Russian sources suggested on the eve of Assad’s arrival, however, that the Foreign and Defense Ministries had won an intergovernmental battle and had convinced the Kremlin to subordinate such financial considerations to the geopolitical gains expected to come with finalization of the arms deal (Segodnya, July 6). It is not clear whether that was in fact the case. Russian arms export officials have continued to speak with optimism of the Syrian arms deal, but there has been little to suggest that the two sides have resolved their differences in the time which has passed since Assad’s visit.

Any major U.S.-Syrian defense cooperation would be doubly galling for Russia, moreover, insofar as the United States has repeatedly warned Moscow against selling advanced weaponry to Syria. Damascus remains on Washington’s list of terrorist states, and the Clinton administration has linked Russian behavior in this area to continued U.S. aid. Last year the United States leveled sanctions against three Russian companies involved in a contract–one which ultimately was not realized–to sell advanced antitank weapons to Syria.

But while Moscow may be feeling a bit used and abused right now by several of the players in the current Middle East peace process, any serious hand-wringing by Russian officials may be premature. The Syrian-Israeli negotiations are anything but a done deal, and there remains considerable opposition in Israel to any return of the Golan Heights to Syria. The price tag attached to the U.S. aid elements of the Barak proposal, moreover, is also likely to be an issue for U.S. lawmakers. According to yesterday’s Jerusalem Post, the Israeli side could ask Washington for somewhere from US$17 billion to more than US$60 billion in aid to compensate Israel for its withdrawal from the Golan and the security zone in Lebanon. That sum would apparently not include the proposed U.S. military aid to Syria (Jerusalem Post, January 10). Even those in Washington most committed to a U.S.-brokered Middle East peace agreement are likely to gulp over that figure.