Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 23

The Clinton administration has reportedly warned Moscow that it will cut US$50 million from its 1999 aid package to Russia if Moscow follows through on a sale of advanced anti-tank missiles to Syria. According to a UPI report, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk delivered the threat to his counterpart Aleksandr Sultanov during U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s recent visit to Moscow.

The U.S. warning was reportedly based on recent U.S. and Israeli intelligence reports indicating that Russia and Syria are in the final stages of negotiations on the missile deal. The United States believes that Syria–like Iran, Iraq, Sudan, North Korea, Cuba and Libya–supports international terrorism. Were Russia to supply Syria with lethal weaponry, Moscow would be subject to U.S. sanctions. Indyk reportedly threatened to hold back the US$50 million–only a portion of total U.S. aid to Russia–because the bulk of the American assistance is earmarked for nuclear disarmament, democratization and market reform (UPI, February 2).

Yesterday’s report comes as a Syrian military delegation, which includes the country’s defense minister, begins a ten-day visit to Russia today. The visit is in part a follow-up to Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s visit to Syria last November, and reflects a broader Russian-Syrian effort to restore extensive military ties.

That effort has thus far been hamstrung by Syria’s Soviet-era debt to Russia–a result of the arms purchased by Damascus from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980’s–which is estimated at US$12 billion. Since 1991 military-technical cooperation between the two countries has been more-or-less “frozen,” and Russian arms dealings with Damascus reportedly amounted to only US$1.3 million in 1997. More than a dozen Russian military advisors and nearly a hundred Russian specialists are said currently to be in Syria, however, and the two countries have reportedly made some progress in resolving the debt issue.

According to Russian sources, finalizing a deal to restructure Syria’s debt to Russia could ultimately clear the way for more than US$2 billion in military-technical cooperation between the two countries. Syria is reported to be especially interested in purchasing Russian Su-27 aircraft, T-80 tanks, and S-300 air defense complexes. Russia would be in line to win lucrative contracts to modernize the Soviet-made aircraft and tanks already fielded by the Syrian armed forces (Itar-Tass, November 18, 1998; Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, November 27-December 3, 1998; Kontinent, No 2, January, 1999; Russian agencies, January 25; 1999).