Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 7

Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s visit last week to the Holy Lands (see the Monitor, January 10) reflected in part Moscow’s intense desire to reestablish itself as a player in the Middle East peace process. Yet the absence of any real Russian contribution to–or presence at–the Syrian-Israeli peace talks which adjourned yesterday in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, suggests the degree to which Moscow has remained marginalized in current Middle East diplomacy. That was a difficult pill for the Kremlin to swallow as Washington played midwife to the rebirth of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is particularly galling, however, for Moscow to be reduced to such an at-best bit-player role in the current Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Russian diplomats have worked assiduously in recent years to reestablish ties with Damascus, and Moscow has demanded repeatedly over the same period of time that Syrian-Israeli talks be resumed as part of the broader Middle Eastern peace process.

And now, if a recent report in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz is to be believed, Russian arms dealers, like the country’s diplomats, could also find themselves on the outside looking in. Ha’aretz reported on January 5 that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his government have been drafting a proposal which could ultimately make the United States a primary provider of military hardware for the Syrian armed forces. The Barak plan, which is said to still be under development, is apparently based on new calculations of Israel’s security requirements vis-a-vis Syria and other states in the region. That new assessment, as other sources have suggested, includes both a belief that the Israeli armed forces have increased their superiority over other militaries in the region and a recognition that Syria’s military strength, in contrast, has deteriorated rapidly over the past decade.

As a result, Ha’aretz suggests, Barak is now prepared to welcome the transfer of U.S. military assistance to Syria following the signing of a peace agreement between the two countries–so long as Washington also guarantees that the Israeli Defense Forces retain their own qualitative advantages in weapons systems and technologies. Indeed, the Israeli government is said to believe that it is in Israel’s interest for Washington to foster a dependence by Syria on American arms. That dependence would serve both to help Washington constrain Syria’s behavior and to discourage Damascus from seeking to acquire more sophisticated military hardware from Russia or Europe (Ha’aretz, January 5; Washington Post, January 6).