Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 131

A surprise, two-day visit to Moscow this week by Syrian President Hafez Assad signaled a new move by the two countries to resuscitate the close bilateral ties which existed between Moscow and Damascus during the Soviet period. Assad’s visit was prompted by Ehud Barak’s election as prime minister of Israel and subsequent indications in Jerusalem that Barak would move quickly to restart the long-stalled Middle East peace process. Assad’s visit to Moscow was judged by most observers to be an effort to enlist Russian political support and to procure Russian weapons–both of which would strengthen Assad’s hand in the upcoming negotiations with Israel. For Russia the stakes are just as high. Strong ties to Syria could open the door to greater Russian influence in the Middle East. A major arms contract with Syria would further that same goal, while possibly also proving lucrative for Russia’s cash-strapped defense industrial sector.

But it was unclear yesterday how far Moscow and Damascus had managed to proceed toward those respective goals. Assad, who had flown to Moscow on short notice after receiving an invitation from President Boris Yeltsin, met with the Russian leader at the Kremlin on July 6. He also held talks during his stay with Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev. It was Assad’s first visit to Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in which the Syrian leader had received military training.

In a joint communique issued after the Yeltsin-Assad talks, the two sides observed positively that Barak’s election presents “certain opportunities for constructive efforts to advance toward a comprehensive and just peace” in the Middle East. They said that Russia should play a significant role in that peace process and called for greater coordination between Moscow and Damascus toward that end. In addition, the two sides resolved to expand trade and economic interaction while intensifying relations more generally. Assad reportedly put his stamp of approval on Russian calls for a “multipolar world,” and backed Moscow in urging a stronger international role for the United Nations. The two sides reportedly saw eye-to-eye on the Kosovo conflict (Russian and Western agencies, July 3-7; New York Times, July 5, 7; Washington Post, July 7).

For all that, however, there was little of a substantive nature announced at the conclusion of the visit. No agreements were signed, and little information was made public regarding the talks on military-technical cooperation. Indeed, Russian sources speculated on whether Syria’s defense minister had even arrived in Moscow to join the large government delegation which was accompanying Syria’s president (Russian agencies, July 6). Russian and Western sources report that Syria is considering the purchase of Russian antitank and antiaircraft systems and T-80 tanks. Damascus is also said to be interested in Russian jet fighters, but reports differed on whether it wants to buy Su-27s or an upgraded version of the Russian MiG-29.

The Russian-Syrian arms talks are reportedly the focus of an intense intergovernmental battle in Moscow between the Finance Ministry, on the one hand, and the Foreign and Defense Ministries, on the other. The Finance Ministry is reportedly unenthusiastic about the US$2 billion deal because of Syria’s US$12 billion Soviet-era debt to Moscow. The Foreign and Defense Ministries, meanwhile, support the deal on the grounds that Russia’s geostrategic interests in the Middle East should be granted priority. Given the current political climate in Russia, and particularly Moscow’s unhappiness over developments in the Balkans, the Foreign and Defense Ministries are said at this time to have the upper hand (Segodnya, July 6).