Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 115

In a move which may signal some ambivalence in Moscow toward a former Cold War era ally, the Kremlin announced this week that President Vladimir Putin would not travel to Damascus to attend today’s funeral of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Putin’s absence is perhaps understandable, insofar as the Russian leader is embarking today on important visits to both Spain and Germany. But it is nevertheless something of a surprise that no member of the Russian government will be traveling to Damascus. Instead, Russia will dispatch a mid-level delegation headed by parliamentary speaker Gennady Seleznev. The Russian group will also include Aleksandr Dzasokhov, the president of North Ossetia and the Soviet ambassador to Syria in the 1980s, and Yevgeny Primakov, the former Russian spymaster and prime minister and one of the country’s most prominent specialists on the Arab world.

At least one report suggested this week that, with Assad’s death, Moscow has lost a long-time ally in the Middle East and is likely to see its influence in the region dwindle even further (AFP, June 12). If remarks by Primakov are to be believed, there may be some similar concerns in the Kremlin. The former Russian prime minister was quoted by Russian television on Sunday (June 11) as saying that Assad’s death could pose a danger to the peace process in the Middle East. Primakov also said that he had spoken to Putin by telephone after the news of Assad’s death broke, and that the Russian president had voiced both his grief over Assad’s death and his concern over the manner in which events would now unfold in the Middle East. Putin had earlier expressed his “sincere and deep condolences” to Syria in the name of the Russian people and had described Assad as a “friend of our country, who had done much to develop cooperation between Russia and Syria” (UPI, June 11).

Putin’s remarks notwithstanding, Assad’s death comes at what appears to be an uncertain time for Russian-Syrian relations. The two countries maintained close ties during the Soviet period, when Moscow was the chief supplier of weaponry for Syria’s armed forces. Even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow continued generally to portray itself as a backer of Syrian–and broader Arab–interests vis-a-vis Israel and Middle East peace negotiations. This support for Damascus appeared to reach a culmination of sorts last July when Assad himself made a rare and unexpected two-day visit to Moscow. The trip came in the wake of Ehud Barak’s election as Israeli prime minister and amid a quickening of diplomatic activity in the region. The Assad visit was seen at the time as part of an effort to enlist Russian political support and to procure Russian weaponry on the eve of what was expected to be renewed negotiations between Israel and Syria.

In the event, however, not much of substance appeared to come from the talks between Assad and then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, despite some rhetoric pledging friendship and mutual support. The two countries had long been negotiating what was said to be a US$2 billion arms deal, but those negotiations had apparently stumbled over repayment of Syria’s estimated US$12 billion debt to Moscow. Assad’s visit to Moscow apparently did little to resolve the differences between Russia and Syria on this score (see the Monitor, July 8, 1999). Indeed, the two countries appeared further apart than ever on an arms deal this past May, when Russia’s ambassador to Israel announced that “we have no arms deals, have no evidence there are complete agreements or deals” in this area (see the Monitor, May 3). Washington has strongly objected to any additional arms sales by Russia to Syria.

Putin was scheduled to arrive in Spain today for talks with Spanish leaders, before departing tomorrow for a three-day visit to Germany. The visits to Spain and Germany are a follow-up to talks conducted by Putin last week in Italy, and will presumably continue the Kremlin’s high-profile efforts both to strengthen European opposition to U.S. missile defense plans and to improve broader ties between Europe and Russia. Among other things, Putin is expected to provide additional information about his proposal–made last week in Italy–for Russian-NATO-U.S. cooperation in the development of a European ballistic missile defense system.