Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 35

Yesterday Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shar’a wound up a three-day visit to Moscow, during which he met with a host of top Russian government officials. Few details of the talks were made public and no major agreements were signed. Both sides emphasized in general terms, however, their desire to raise bilateral relations to a level comparable to that which existed between Damascus and Moscow during the Soviet period.

That last point was made clear by a Russian government spokeswoman following talks on February 16 between al Shar’a and Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. According to the spokeswoman, both sides expressed a mutual interest in expanded political coordination between Russia and Syria and in a consolidation of partnership relations. They also spoke of boosting joint trade, economic, scientific and technical projects. Both sides also underlined the importance of a greater role for Moscow in the Middle East peace process. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who met with al Shar’a on February 17, said similarly that Syria had to be recognized as a key player in those same peace efforts (Russian agencies, February 15-17).

The two sides also made clear that military-technical cooperation was a major topic of discussion during al Shar’a’s stay in Moscow. Although few details were released, Russian sources said that talks focused on implementing a series of cooperation agreements reached during a visit to Syria by Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev in November of last year. Those preliminary agreements are said to involve some US$2 billion in Syrian purchases of Russian military hardware and services (Itar-Tass, February 16).

This week’s Russian-Syrian talks come on the heels of a threat from the Clinton administration that it will consider cutting some US$50 million in aid to Russia if Moscow follows through on a proposed sale of advanced antitank weapons to Syria (see the Monitor, February 3, 8). Moscow rebuffed that warning as interference in Russian affairs, and both Russia and Syrian officials made it clear during the talks this week that they would seek to boost military-technical cooperation in the face of Washington’s objections.