South Africa May Upgrade Syrian Tanks despite U.S. Pressure

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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. …