MOSCOW, July 6 (JTA) — While Syrian President Hafez Assad and his Russian hosts talked about the Middle East peace process, Assad had a different priority during his meetings here this week: an estimated $2 billion arms purchase from Moscow. Indeed, this became a matter for concern at the U.S. State Department, which issued a warning Tuesday that Russia could be denied American assistance if it concludes a new weapons deal with Syria, which Washington has designated a state sponsor of terrorism. But even if Syria does sign an arms agreement with Moscow, the move is not necessarily directed against Israel, according to at least one Middle East expert here. Syria does not need these weapons “to solve its problems with Israel,” said Yevgeny Satanovsky, head of the Institute for Israel and Near Eastern Research, a Moscow-based think tank. “Syrian problems with its other neighbors, including Turkey and Iraq, are viewed in Damascus as no less serious,” Satanovsky added. “Syria’s desire to regain at least part of its former defense capability is also a reaction to the worsening of its relations with Turkey, which controls its water supplies. Just the same, most analysts agree, if Assad signs an arms deal here, it will do little to improve Israeli-Syrian relations or, for that matter, Israeli-Russian ties. This week’s visit is Assad’s 14th official trip here — and the first since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Assad had close ties with Moscow even prior to becoming Syrian president in 1971 — he was even trained at a Soviet military college. His latest trip comes only weeks after he made his first public comments about Israel’s new premier, Ehud Barak, describing him as a “strong and honest” leader. The remark prompted widespread optimism that Israel and Syria are on the verge of resuming peace talks that were suspended in 1996. Assad undoubtedly had the peace process on his mind during this week’s visit. Eager to ensure Moscow’s active role in the Middle East to counterbalance U.S. influence, Assad said during his meeting with President Boris Yeltsin that he hoped Russia would help restore political balance in the Middle East, Russian television quoted the Syrian leader as saying. And his talks with Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov focused on Moscow’s possible participation in renewing Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Yet for all the talk about the Middle East, political commentators here suggest that Moscow is not likely to be able to boost its role in the region. Its relations with Israel in the wake of Barak’s recent election as prime minister remain unclear. Moreover, they say, Russia’s economic troubles, coupled with the focus the Kremlin is putting on domestic issues – – the Russian parliamentary elections slated for later this year and the presidential elections in the summer of 2000, foremost among them — will not permit Moscow to increase its influence in the Middle East. Instead, they agree, Russia-Syrian relations are likely to focus on arms sales and on upgrading Syria’s aging military arsenal. A Russian news agency estimated that 90 percent of Syrian weapons were built in Russia and the former Soviet Union, from which Damascus was a major weapons buyer during the Cold War. During this week’s visit, Assad was believed to be seeking a restructuring of Syria’s $10 billion to $12 billion debt to Russia, much of which lingers from Soviet times. At the same time as he seeks debt relief for those earlier arms purchases, Assad will also be negotiating the new arms deal, which according to some reports totals $2 billion. Some analysts predict, however, that Russia’s desire to see hard cash for the purchases, coupled with Syria’s inability to pay the full amount, will cut the final figure by almost half. The attention Russian leaders devoted to Assad’s visit demonstrated Moscow’s readiness to negotiate the final details of the deal, which has been in the pipeline for months. As part of the deal, Damascus wants to purchase modern Russian SU-27 fighter jets to replace its outdated Soviet-made MIGs. Also on Syria’s shopping list are T-80 tanks, S-300 anti-aircraft systems and anti-tank missiles. In addition, Syria wants Russia to upgrade more than 100 of its MIG jet fighters. Last year, Russia agreed to sell Kornet-E and Metis-M anti-tank missiles to Damascus, prompting U.S. protests. While that contract has not been finalized, Moscow has made it clear, contrary to U.S. pressures, that Syria is not on any Kremlin list of countries it is unwilling to do business with. If the latest arms deal goes through, it will reflect Moscow’s desire to re-establish its traditional alliance with Syria and boost its standing in the Middle East, according to Middle East expert Konstantin Eggert. At the same time, he added, the deal will provide some much-needed relief for Russia’s cash-strapped munitions industry. Other analysts in the Russian media suggested that any military contract between Moscow and Damascus will likely tarnish Israeli-Russian relations. Assad’s visit here comes less than four months after outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Moscow. During that visit, Israel and Russia agreed to cooperate to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and also reached an agreement aimed at boosting bilateral trade. Netanyahu’s trip marked the high-water mark in relations between Moscow and Jerusalem, which had never been closer since they renewed diplomatic relations 10 years ago. But even so, Israel’s relationship with Russia has traditionally been marked by distrust — and this would only increase in the wake of a Kremlin arms deal with Assad.
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