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Syrian Leader Highlights Solidarity, Seeks Arms, In Visit To Russia

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (right) and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Sochi
Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, in Russia on a two-day visit, backed Moscow's military action against Georgia at talks with President Dmitry Medvedev that were expected to cover purchases of Russian arms.

The show of solidarity by Damascus, a Soviet-era ally of Moscow, raises images of a return to Cold War alignments. In exchange, Syria appears to hope for substantial new arms sales.

"We understand the essence of the Russian position and its military response," al-Assad told Medvedev at the start of their meeting in the Kremlin leader's Black Sea residence, Bocharov Ruchei. "We believe Russia was responding to the Georgian provocation."

Both presidents – who are meeting for the first time – are likely to regard the timing of the visit as beneficial.

Drive A Wedge

Al-Assad has long been eager to draw closer to Russia and appears to have seized the Georgian conflict as an occasion to do so.

At the same time, the Syrian leader is eager to drive a wedge between Russia and Israel, with which Syria officially remains in a state of war.

In an interview with the Russian daily "Kommersant" published on August 20, al-Assad said, "Everyone knows about the role Israel and its military consultants played in the Georgia crisis." He added that Russia could no longer count on "friendliness" with Israel and that "arms purchases are very important" for Syria.

All this would seem to set the stage for a highly successful visit. Russia -- at a time when the West is seeking to isolate it over the Georgian crisis -- can only be happy with states that show solidarity with it.

But whether al-Assad's visit, which began August 20, will actually result in substantial arms sales to Syria is a more delicate question. That is because, even if some aspects of the visit look like a return to Cold War alignments, much has changed since those days.

Rediscover The Soviet Union

Damascus may be eager to regain Moscow as its prime international ally -- that is, to rediscover the Soviet Unon. But today's Russia has economic ties with Israel that make a return to the past highly unlikely.

As Russian analyst Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technology in Moscow, recently told "The Moscow Times": Russia is reluctant to upset Israel because it can be "a valuable source of modern military technologies."

Russian ties with Israel, which can be rocky but have recently moderately improved, are made easier by the presence of a large Russian-speaking minority there -- another difference from the Soviet era.

In a sign of the importance that Israel, in its turn, puts on amicable terms with Russia, Jerusalem last year reportedly abandoned at Moscow's request a deal to supply military tanks to Georgia. That was despite Israeli ties to Georgia which have included supplying explosives, military vehicles, and consultants.

So, what can al-Assad -- who is on his third visit to Russia -- offer Moscow as an incentive?

The main bargaining chip is Syria's naval base of Tartus on the Mediterranean. Currently, Russia stations only supply vessels there but could be interested in basing warships in the future.

Missile Talks

In exchange, Assad would hope to get Russian arms -- specifically, antiaircraft and antitank missile systems.

Interfax reports that Syria is interested in Russia's Pantsyr-S1 air-defense system, BUK-M1 surface-to-air medium-range missile system, military aircraft, and other hardware.

British daily "Financial Times" reports that Damascus is equally interested in reviving talks to import Russian Iskander ballistic missiles, which have better targeting capabilities than Syria’s current Scud missiles. Talks over those missiles were abandoned two years ago.

How much of that wish list can be realized will only become clearer when any negotiations launched by the presidential talks conclude.

But in the meantime, Moscow has sought to emphasize that whatever the results of the Sochi meeting, Russia regards Syria -- branded a "rogue state" by Washington -- as an important ally. The Kremlin said in a statement on August 20 that Syria is "one of Russia's key partners in the Middle East."

It said that from 2000 to 2007, trade between the two countries grew by 500 percent, topping $1 billion last year.
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