- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

Russia’s refusal to supply uranium to the Iranian nuclear power station in Bushehr and Moscow’s cooperation on the U.N. Security Council sanctions against Tehran deserve praise. However, the flow of advanced Russian weapons to Syria tends to be neglected by experts and policymakers alike. This too is a destabilizing factor as far as the Middle East is concerned.

Not only Russian weapons may boost Damascus’ aggressiveness. Syria supplied these arms to Hezbollah and Hamas, and may wreak havoc in case of another — and likely — flare-up involving these terrorist organizations.

The Middle East by no means is a new market for Russian weapons. The Soviet Union armed the region for decades, as a major supplier to such states as Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria and Yemen, often in exchange for mere promises of future payment. It was specifically this unpaid debt that led to a halt of weapons sales to Syria after the Soviet state collapsed. Yet the years of 1998-1999 marked the resumption of sales of such weapons as AT-14 Kornet-E and Metis anti-tank guided missiles.

Despite interest on both sides in increasing weapons sales, the unresolved issue of Soviet-era debt prevented any major deals. This obstacle to further development of Russia-Syria relations galvanized Russia’s relations with Israel, especially in the area of counterterrorism.

Though re-establishment of ties between Russia and Syria began as early as 1998, the relationship did not blossom until 2005. In fact, Bashar Assad’s January 2005 visit to Moscow proved a turning point as Russia decided to write off 73 percent of Syrian debt, which totaled $13.4 billion. Sources in Moscow said Iran lobbied Russia for forgiveness of the Syrian debt, with the quid pro quo to materialize in the form of massive Iranian weapons purchases and other contracts.

With the Syrian military in dire need of modernization, and Russia’s defense industry seeking to reclaim markets for weapons exports, a sale of Strelets air defense missile systems was concluded the same year, despite protests from Israel and the United States. The sale of these vehicle-mounted, short-range surface-to-air missiles was, in fact, a result of a concession on the part of Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has indeed denied Syria its request for more robust air defense missiles, such as the S-300 and the Igla and for a short-range ballistic missile called the Iskander-E. Some analysts opined Mr. Putin showed sensitivity to the security concerns of Israel.

Syria, in the meantime, was supplying Hezbollah with Russian weapons. In 2006, Israeli forces found evidence of Russian-made Kornet-E and Metis-M anti-tank systems in Hezbollah’s possession in southern Lebanon. The Russian response to the accusations of supplying terrorist groups with weapons was a February 2007 announcement that Russia’s military will inspect Syrian weapons storage facilities with the goal of preventing the weapons from reaching unintended customers.

Predictably, such developments placed considerable strain on deteriorating Russian-Israeli relations. Aggravating the situation are reports of alleged new weapons deals between Russia and Syria. Ostensibly, further delivery of Russian anti-tank missiles is nearly complete, the very same models found in Hezbollah’s possession in Lebanon.

The issue was brought to the headlines is recent tragic death of Ivan Safronov, the respected military correspondent of Kommersant Daily, who claimed to have indisputable evidence of Russia’s intention to sell the modern Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft systems, MiG-29 fighter jets, and Iskander surface-to-air missiles to Syria via Belarus. Mr. Safronov reportedly obtained evidence of a sale at the Middle East arms fair IDEX-2007, which coincided with Mr. Putin’s Middle East visit.

While the sale has been denied by Russia, lest it look guilty of supplying rogue states, Sergei Vasilyev, director of the weapons plant Kupol announced at the fair that Pantsir-C1 systems have already been purchased by three Middle Eastern countries, though only one customer was named — the United Arab Emirates. There are reasons to believe Syria is one of Kupol’s customers.

That increase in Russian arms sales to Syria prompted immediate Israeli objections. Israel’s Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres called to pressure Moscow to stop the sale of weapons that threaten Israel’s security.

Russia is engaged in complex relationships in the Middle East. First, it wants to restore its great power status in an area that is key to the world’s energy security. Andrei Gromyko used to say no conflict in the world can be resolved against the wishes and without involvement of the Soviet Union. So today’s Kremlin rulers aim to become an “indispensable power” east of Suez.

Second, while Russia has a thriving economic relationship with Israel, and more than 1 million former Soviet citizens reside there, Russia also wants close-knit ties with the Arab world, and weapons sales are the sure-fire way to achieve that. Finally, Russia increasingly views Israel through the prism of its competition with the U.S.

All that bodes ill for the Jewish state, especially as its top echelon has provided weak leadership in last year’s Hezbollah war and failed to stop Hamas’ shelling of southern Israel from the evacuated Gaza strip.

Hamas and Hezbollah train thousands of their terrorists in Iran and under Iranian guidance build expansive bunker and tunnel fortifications for the next war. Moscow distances itself from the West. Peace in the region looks more elusive than ever.

Ariel Cohen is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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