South Africa May Upgrade Syrian Tanks Despite U.S. Pressure
South Africa's announcement in January that its Denel arms company was competing for an estimated $650 million contract to upgrade the fire-control systems in Syria's fleet of main battle tanks led to two months of diplomatic sniping between Washington and Pretoria. Nevertheless, despite substantial U.S. pressure, it is possible that Denel will continue to compete for the lucrative contract.
The controversy began earlier this year when it was reported that South Africa was marketing an advanced targeting system for Syria's Soviet-made T-72 tanks that possibly could affect the balance of power on the Golan Heights, where there are several Syrian and Israeli armored divisions. State Department officials then met with a South African delegation in Washington, DC Jan. 14 to express Washington's uncompromising disapproval of the sale.
Adding to the criticism, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to President Clinton Jan. 17 that read: "The government of South Africa should understand that, not only will U.S.-South African relations suffer if they arm Syria, but also a significant amount of U.S. foreign aid will be cut off." Following the Helms letter, the administration of President Bill Clinton made it clear that South Africa's involvement in the tank upgrade would jeopardize both its $83 million in U.S. foreign aid this year, and the planned transfer of five C-130 transport aircraft to be donated by the Pentagon.
South African officials responded by saying that the final decision would be left up to Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, who would decide the matter during a Jan. 22 cabinet meeting. Following that meeting, Mbeki announced that the sale had been "postponed," which U.S. and Israeli officials interpreted to be a face-saving method of canceling the sale without the appearance of yielding to U.S. and Israeli pressure.
Substantiating those conclusions, Mbeki met privately with U.S. Ambassador to Pretoria James Joseph and assured him that the sale was unlikely to proceed, the U.S. defense weekly Defense News reported Jan. 27. Israel's Jerusalem Post also reported Feb. 1 that South Africa's Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo informed Israeli Ambassador Victor Harel that the issue wouldn't be raised again for at least three years.
Just as the controversy appeared over, it was reignited by South African President Nelson Mandela. Speaking to a reporter from the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat Feb. 5 during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mandela said: "If the Syrians are happy with the quality of South African technology we will sell them arms they have asked for and we will not care about any kind of threat." Two days after Mandela's comment, South Africa's chargés d'affaires in Washington circulated a letter to selected members of Congress offering to discuss the issue "before taking any final decision."
South Africa's tank targeting system might be of Israeli origin.
Adding to the new round of tensions, South Africa's Defense Minister Joe Modise made several controversial statements Feb. 14, hours prior to the arrival in Cape Town of U.S. Vice President Al Gore for the U.S.-South Africa Binational Commission. In response to questions from reporters about the status of the arms sale, Modise replied: "As far as we are concerned, we treat all states equally. I've never heard the same questions asked about Syria or Lebanon when arms are being sold to Israel...why does it become such a big problem when [Syria] is now also being equipped?"
Vice President Gore reacted coolly to the defense minister's remarks. He told reporters in Cape Town Feb. 15 that he treats "opportunities to discuss such sensitive issues with President Nelson Mandela and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki the same way [he] treats such conversations with President Clinton -- as matters that must be dealt with confidentially."
Shortly after Gore's trip to South Africa, the White House became mired in yet another round of charges stemming from alleged unethical and illegal campaign finance questions, and the South Africa-Syria arms deal dropped off Washington's news map.
The "Pariah Club"
Often overlooked in the mainstream American press during this controversy was the irony inherent in South African arms sales to an enemy of Israel. During the apartheid era, Israel and South Africa co-operated extensively in arms research and development, including intermediate-range ballistic missile tests and a test of a nuclear device in 1979 detected by U.S. spy satellites. The cooperation, often referred to as the "pariah club," allowed South Africa "back door" access through Israel to Western technology, apparently including American technology, despite an international trade embargo against South Africa itself.
Defense Minister Modise discussed this relationship in detail, much to Israel's embarrassment, during a Feb. 14 press conference in Cape Town. He said that Israel was South Africa's "best client" from 1978 until the present, and that defense ties between the two "were never cut." "We are selling [arms] to Israel and they sell [arms] to us," he said.
In Israel, there also were concerns that South Africa's tank targeting system might be of Israeli origin. "Israeli officials contend that Denel's tank fire-control system may be based on [Israeli] technology and quietly have registered concern that they potentially could face their own technology on the Golan Heights through a South African sale to Syria," Defense News reported Jan. 20.
Israel's concern on this issue highlights an important aspect of the U.S.-Israeli defense relationship. Israeli engineers routinely disassemble, study, and copy American-supplied military hardware and then make a new, "Israeli" version that is in reality a reverse-engineered, pirated copy of the American original. When successive U.S. administrations have expressed mild concern about this practice, particularly when that technology then is re-exported to countries to which the United States will not sell arms for strategic and other reasons, Israeli officials routinely contend that their products are Israeli, not American. If this argument were true, which it clearly is not, South Africa's sale to Syria of a jointly-developed tank targeting system would force the Israelis to confront exactly the same retransfer situation U.S. officials routinely confront as a result of America's defense relationship with Israel.
In the midst of all the allegations and counter-allegations, South African officials urged the United States not to be too concerned about Denel's involvement in Syria because it had only obtained a permit to try to market its wares internationally. In a Feb. 11 press briefing, South Africa's Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad told reporters that Syria's plans were at least two and a half years away, and could take as long as 10 years to complete. These remarks, combined with Deputy Foreign Minister Nzo's assurances to Israel's ambassador that the issue wouldn't come up again for at least three years, suggest that South Africa may be planning to delay, but not necessarily to abandon, plans to upgrade Syria's substantial fleet of tanks.
In the final analysis, U.S. pressure may not be the deciding factor in South Africa's decision on this potential arms sale, particularly if the decision is postponed until the United States stops giving aid to South Africa. Assuming that Denel is chosen by Syria, which is a bold assumption because it has been reported that eight companies are competing for the tank upgrade, it is doubtful that the Syrians can afford such a large purchase. Without the sponsorship of the Soviet Union or its Russian successor, Syria has had to rein in defense spending and strike barter deals with arms sellers. Unless Denel hopes to use the Syrian sale to demonstrate the capabilities of its fire-control system in hopes of more financially lucrative contracts from other customers, there is little real incentive for the South African company to pursue the sale aggressively.
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