Russia's Troubling Arms Sales
Byline: Ariel Cohen, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
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. …