LONDON (Jan. 31)
Syria is expected to conclude a massive arms deal with Russia later this month that strategic analysts say will significantly erode, though not actually destroy, Israel’s qualitative military edge.
The deal, estimated to be worth between $2 billion and $3 billion, has been in the works for two years and is expected to be sealed when Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas leads a high-level Syrian delegation to Moscow for 10 days of intensive talks in late February.
Among the Russian weapons systems Syria is reportedly seeking are Sukhoi-27 fighter aircraft, T-80 tanks, S-300 anti-aircraft and anti-missile Sam systems. The Sams are said to be equivalent to U.S. Patriot missiles.
According to one strategic analyst, the negotiations hit two snags before agreement was reached: The first was Syria’s residual debt — estimated at some $12 billion — to the former Soviet Union; the second was its inability to finance fresh arms purchases.
Moscow signaled its willingness to find a solution to the debt problem when it approved the sale of 1,000 AT8 Kornet anti-tank missiles to Syria last year, a $200 million contract that has been described as “an appetizer” compared to the upcoming deal.
This latest deal will be significant for Syria on several counts, according to leading Arab strategic analyst Kassem Mohammad Jaafar.
On one level, he told the London-based daily newsletter Mideast Mirror, it would constitute the first major military deal Syria has concluded with Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union, marking the resumption of strategic cooperation between Damascus and Moscow.
On another level, the acquisition of state-of-the-art weapons by the Syrian armed forces would greatly enhance Syria’s military capability, said Jaafar, who added that the Sukhoi-27 is regarded as equivalent, if not superior, to the U.S.-made F-15 fighter jets that Israel currently has in its arsenal.
Moreover, the T-80 is one of the newest generation of tanks, while the S-300 system would enable Syria to defend itself against both missile and air strikes.
Equally important are other aspects of the deal, which involve the supply of spare parts, the upgrading of weapons systems and the support and modernization of Syria’s armed forces.
Moreover, the deal will return Russia as a major player in the Middle East, an ambition that is believed to have been accelerated since the appointment last September of veteran Arabist Yevgeny Primakov as Russian prime minister.
In a related development, British intelligence sources reported that sophisticated Russian technology is being transferred to Damascus to aid Syria’s chemical weapons project.
Quoting the intelligence sources, the London Times reported that unofficial secret links have been found between Russian technical experts and Syria aimed at helping Damascus produce advanced chemical weapons.
“It is now feared that sophisticated Russian technology has been passed to Syria by former members of Moscow’s chemical weapons project,” the article said.
Through unofficial exchanges with these experts, Syria is thought to have acquired the technology for dispersing chemical agents, including VX nerve gas, via bombs from aircraft and warheads on surface-to-surface missiles.
Syrian Scud C ballistic missiles with a range of some 325 miles are believed to have been adapted to disperse VX gas. The Syrians have also reportedly shown interest in acquiring more lethal chemicals that were developed in Russia in the 1980s.
Until the mid-1990s, Syria focused on the production of sarin nerve gas, but Damascus is now developing VX independently and is believed to have test-fired missiles armed with this agent. One test was reported to have been conducted near Damascus last May.