Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 102

Rumors of an impending Russian-Syrian arms deal grew hot again this week during a visit to Moscow by Syria’s secretive defense minister. Mustafa Tlass, who also serves as Syria’s deputy prime minister and is considered among the most powerful men in the country, arrived in Moscow on the evening of May 22 and met the following day with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Before his departure, which was scheduled for today, Tlass was also scheduled to hold talks with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov (who oversees defense industrial affairs), with Russian State Duma Defense Committee chairman Andrei Nikolaev, and with representatives from both the Russian state arms trading company Rosoboroneksport and the MiG aircraft manufacturer.

Reports out of Moscow indicated that the agenda for Tlass and his various Russian interlocutors included discussions of the deteriorating situation in the Middle East and Russian-Syrian bilateral relations. Tlass was said to be encouraging Russia to play a more prominent role in resolving the conflicts in the Middle East–a common call for Arab leaders visiting Moscow. More important, he was said to be seeking assurances of Russian backing for Damascus in the event that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spills beyond Israel’s borders and ignites a broader conflagration in the region. Tlass’ visit to Moscow comes amid a broader international diplomatic effort to quell hostilities in the Middle East. Tlass is also but one of several officials from Middle Eastern countries who has scheduled visits to Moscow in recent weeks. Their number includes Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who was in the Russian capital earlier this week, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, whose impending visit reports say will begin either on May 29 or June 8. In addition, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was in Moscow on May 16 for talks that focused on the explosive situation in the Middle East.

With regard to Tlass’ Moscow visit, however, the emphasis appeared to be on Russian-Syrian military-technical cooperation, that is, on possible Russian arms sales to Damascus. That conclusion was suggested by the fact that Russia and Syria have reportedly been engaged over several years now on negotiations regarding a possible package of major arms deals–a package that has been opposed by the United States–and that many of those with whom Tlass met in Moscow on this occasion hail from Russia’s military and defense industrial sectors. Further adding to the sense that something significant was afoot in this sensitive area, Tlass took pains to shroud his Moscow meetings in secrecy. At his request Russian media were not allowed to film the traditional handshake that started talks between the Russian and Syrian delegations, and the talks themselves were held exclusively “behind closed doors.” The Russian side went along with this in other ways. Both the Kremlin and the MiG corporation pointedly refused to comment to reporters on Tlass’ visit.

Whether there was any fire behind all this smoke is difficult to say. The Russian daily Vremya Novostei suggested that there might not be. It quoted sources from the Russian military industrial complex as saying that the “Syrian minister pulled off a beautiful PR campaign, and we played along.” The veil of secrecy surrounding the talks, the newspaper went on, generated instant rumors about “immediate restoration of full-fledged arms sales to Damascus.” However, the same sources said that Moscow and Damascus are still unable even to reach a common interpretation of a key 1980 Soviet-Syrian friendship treaty. There has also been little to suggest that the two countries have been able to overcome the biggest obstacle to renewed Russian arms sales to Damascus–Syria’s estimated US$13.3 billion Soviet-era debt to Moscow.

Despite this background, Russian reports have suggested that arms talks between Russia and Syria are continuing, and contracts worth anywhere from US$1-2 billion may be at stake. These reports point to nearly a half-decade of Soviet arms sales to Damascus, and to the fact that not only are Syria’s current armaments 90 percent Soviet- or Russian-made, but they are also in desperate need of repair and upgrading. According to one Russian analyst, Syria could be prepared to spend US$1.5 billion on Russian arms over the next three to five years, and this money might come not only from Damascus, but also possibly from sponsor countries such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. The same analyst suggested that, should Syria go forward with a military modernization program, Russia might actually face some competition from Ukraine and Eastern European countries, particularly with regard to armaments for the ground forces. But Russia has a clear advantage when it comes to aircraft and anti-aircraft defense systems, the analyst concluded (AFP, May 22-23; Russian agencies, May 23-24; Vremya Novostei, Vedomosti, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 24).

Reports of Tlass’ visit also contained hints, presumably dropped by Russian and Syrian officials, that the rising instability in the Middle East is making Syria’s search for military upgrades ever more urgent. Several reports also contained references to alleged special concerns in Moscow and Damascus regarding possible increased defense cooperation between Israel and Turkey. One quoted Russian “military and political circles” as suggesting that Moscow was prepared to move decisively to preclude the formation of any Israeli-Turkish alliance (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 24; Russian agencies, May 23).

Aside from the need for Moscow and Damascus to overcome problems related to debt and payment, a significant revival of Russian-Syrian military-technical cooperation would also face the likely opposition of the United States. Indeed, Washington and Moscow have trod this road before. In April of 1999 the United States sanctioned three Russian facilities accused of supplying “lethal military equipment” to Syria. That move came in the runup to a surprise visit to Moscow by then Syrian President Hafez Assad, a visit that many thought would clinch a major arms deal between Russia and Syria. That proved not to be the case, perhaps in part because of threats from Washington that the United States might cancel some US$50 million in aid to Russia if the arms deal went through. But the failure appeared to reflect deeper-seated problems between Russia and Syria as well. Moscow’s ambivalence toward Damascus was reflected in the fact that President Vladimir Putin chose not to attend Assad’s funeral in June of last year (see the Monitor, June 13, 2000). Since that time there has been something of a cooling between the two countries. This past April, however, the Kremlin reportedly indicated to a Syrian envoy that Vladimir Putin was prepared to visit Damascus in late 2001 (Novye Izvestia, April 18). It remains to be seen whether that visit will become a reality, and whether Russia will act to rebuild its relations with Syria as it has begun to rebuild ties with a host of other former Soviet client states.