Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 131

The absence of concrete agreements at the close of Assad’s visit may have been a reflection merely of the hastily arranged nature of the event. With regard to the talks on military-technical cooperation, Moscow’s silence may also have been related to a warning issued by Washington. The U.S. State Department cautioned this week that it could cancel some US$50 million in aid to Russia if Moscow signs any major new weapons contracts with Syria. A Russian-Syrian arms deal would also strain relations between Israel and Russia (AP, July 6; Washington Post, July 7).

The United States and Russia have been down this road before. Since a visit by Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev to Damascus in November 1998, the Russian press has carried numerous reports of an impending US$2billion arms deal between Russia and Syria. In February of this year, these same Russian-Syrian arms negotiations led the U.S. government, which considers Syria to be a sponsor of state terrorism, to warn of possible sanctions. That warning became a reality in early April, when the Clinton administration announced that it was leveling sanctions against three Russian organizations accused of supplying “lethal military equipment” to Syria. The Tula Design Bureau, the Volsky Mechanical Plant and the Klimovsky Central Research Institute for Precision Machine Tool Engineering were penalized for their involvement in the sale of advanced antitank weaponry to Damascus.

Russian diplomats reacted angrily to the U.S. move, calling it “sheer blackmail.” Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, the Defense Ministry’s chief of liaisons with foreign countries, characterized the sanctions as “part of the U.S. political diktat and its policy of seeking U.S. supremacy in any part of the world” (see Monitor, February 8, April 5). Ivashov has since emerged as one of the military leadership’s most notorious hardliners, and is believed to be among the group of generals who have driven Russia’s increasingly aggressive policy in Yugoslavia.

It remains unclear, however, whether the Russian-Syrian deal for antitank weaponry was finalized. If not, that may be one reason why Assad chose to postpone at the last minute a visit to Moscow scheduled for April 11. No reason was ever given for the change of plans, but other factors may have been involved. For one, Syria’s Soviet-era debt to Moscow–estimated at US$12 billion–has been the primary obstacle to a final agreement on fresh Russian arms sales to Syria. The two sides may have failed in their efforts to work out some sort of debt restructuring which would have allowed Syria to purchase the Russian weaponry.

More probably, however, the Syrian president chose to cancel his visit to Moscow because Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon was scheduled to arrive in the Russian capital on the same day. The Sharon visit came during a brief honeymoon between the Israeli and Russian governments which preceded Israel’s May 17 election. Israeli newspapers of the time were filled with speculation that the sudden infatuation of the Netanyahu government with Moscow was related less to foreign policy considerations than to efforts aimed at winning the large Russian immigrant vote in the upcoming Israeli election. Netanyahu’s courtship of Moscow, moreover, appeared to have been reciprocated. Then Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was widely quoted as having said that, were he an Israeli, he would vote for Netanyahu (New York Times, April 13). Given that background, there was more than a little irony to the fact that Yeltsin and Assad this week hailed the election of Barak as a breakthrough for the Middle East peace process. They blamed the breakdown of the peace talks on Netanyahu.