Prague, 7 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Syrian President Hafez Assad's visit to Russia this week provides a measure of how closely the interests of Damascus and Moscow continue to overlap in the Middle East long after the passing of the Cold War.
The Syrian leader's trip was his first to Moscow since the collapse of communism in Russia in 1991. But the welcome he received was highly reminiscent of that he used to get on his 14 past visits to the Soviet Union. Those visits were routinely marked by joint statements calling for closer Soviet-Syrian ties and condemning U.S. influence in the Middle East. They were also accompanied by Soviet arms sales on credit to Damascus worth thousands of millions of dollars.
Assad's two-day visit which ended yesterday followed much the same pattern, despite the fact he was meeting many of Moscow's current leaders for the first time.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin set the tone of the visit yesterday as he personally welcomed Assad by calling him "an old friend of Russia." The two leaders then went into talks in which they were joined by Russia's foreign, interior, and trade ministers for a full discussion of international relations, bilateral trade, and military cooperation.
Following the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov emerged with a joint statement by the two leaders which took a Cold-War sounding swipe at the United States and called for a greater Russian role in the Mideast peace process.
Ivanov said that Assad and Yeltsin favor a multi-polar world in which no single state has the power to dictate events. That appeared to be clear criticism of what both sides see as U.S. efforts to dominate the post-Cold War order. Ivanov also said that Russia, as a co-sponsor of the Mideast peace process, must participate in finding a lasting peace in the region.
Neither the Russian nor the Syrian side spoke publicly about any new agreements on trade or arms between them. But Itar-Tass quoted Yeltsin as later instructing his ministers to try to be sure that visiting Syrian delegations for trade, finance, industry and agriculture all, in his words, "take something back from Moscow."
Analysts say that there are strong reasons why Damascus and Moscow are intent on maintaining the same kind of close political, economic and military ties they had during the Cold War. Those ties saw Damascus become the Soviet Union's chief point of influence in the Middle East and Soviet-Syrian trade grow to some 1,000 million dollars annually, not including arms transfers. Soviet arms supplies to Damascus were so great that they left Syria with an outstanding debt to Moscow of some 12,000 million dollars, vastly more than Syria's poor economy can afford to pay.
James Akins, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and an expert on Syrian politics, told RFE/RL from Washington that Russia and Syria now both want Moscow to regain a powerful role in the Middle East as a counterweight to what they see as increasing U.S. leadership in the region. James Akins said:
"The Soviet Union does not exist anymore and Russia is a successor state which yearns for the glories of Soviet power. And there is no doubt that what the Syrians and Russians want in the Middle East is a bigger Russian and European role.... If outsiders have to be involved, all the Arabs would like to see Russia and the Europeans involved to balance the U.S., which is seen not as an honest broker but as the underwriter of Israel. So Syria and Russia want the same things in the Mideast."
In recent years, Syria has assumed an increasingly key role in determining the shape of any future Israeli-Arab peace as Israel seeks to extricate itself from a war of attrition in southern Lebanon. The Israeli efforts are likely to increase with the new government of prime minister Ehud Barak, who has promised to withdraw Israeli soldiers from Lebanon, which is largely controlled by Syria. As part of his initiative, Barak also has expressed readiness to resume comprehensive peace talks with Syria which have been frozen for the past three years.
Akins says that any revived Israeli-Syrian peace talks would present Moscow with an important role to play as Syria's advocate. That, in turn, would provide Moscow with greater influence with other Arab states which are key players in the Israeli-Arab conflict, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Both Syria and Russia also want to maintain close bi-lateral ties for their own economic ends. Analysts say that Syria counts on Russia as almost the only arms-producer in the world which will extend it the necessary credit to refurbish what is still one of the most powerful armies in the Middle East. Correspondents say that Syria is particularly interested in acquiring Russia's upgraded MiG-29 fighter aircraft, T-80 tanks and anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems.
Moscow is reported to be considering the sale of up to $2 billion more worth of weapons, despite Syria's huge outstanding debt for past Soviet sales. One reason is that making new sales not only maintains Moscow's influence in Damascus, it also provides one of Moscow's few hopes of recouping at least some of the money it has already lent its ally.
Akins says that the Russians have effectively written off Syria's debt to the Soviet Union but that Assad is likely to have come to Moscow with some means of making a down payment for new systems that will encourage Moscow to continue making sales. James Akin said:
"I have no doubt that [the Russians] would like to get some money out [of the Syrians] and, who knows, Assad may have some commitments from some of the Gulf Arabs to pay for these arms. It is quite possible. It is a reasonable assumption that he tried to get it and it is not unreasonable that he was at least partially successful."
Akins says that Assad is able to obtain financing for arms from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates due to their mutual antipathy to Israel. He says the Syrian leader enjoys good relations with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah, who is believed to exercise many of the day-to-day decisions of government for his ailing brother King Fahd.
Any renewed Russian arms sales to Damascus are likely to be strongly criticized by the United States, which maintains Syria on a list of terrorist states. U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley said yesterday that Washington, in his words, would be very concerned about any new Russian arms sales to Syria or any other designated state sponsor of terrorism.
Under U.S. law, aid may be withheld from governments which transfer lethal military equipment to countries deemed to sponsor terrorism. Washington placed sanctions on three Russian firms in March after they sold anti-tank guided missiles to Syria, but the State Department waived possible punishment against the Russian government.