Russia-Syria relations appear on the mend

LONDON — The Moscow-Damascus axis is up and running again.

In a move that has the potential to alter the political landscape of the Middle East, Russia has returned to the region, where it is picking up the pieces that slipped from the grasp of the dissolving Soviet Union.

Ties with Damascus, formerly Moscow's closest ally in the region, will be reinforced in the autumn when Syrian President Hafez Assad, who rarely travels outside his country, makes his first visit to Russia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet empire.

The announcement of Assad's trip was made at a news conference last week by the Russian ambassador to Damascus, Viktor Gogitidze, and coincides with media reports that the two countries have concluded their biggest arms deal in years.

It also comes against the backdrop of growing Syrian perceptions of American weakness in the region. Such weakness is exemplified by failure to convert declarations of political determination into action in the Iraq crisis earlier this year, in getting Europe to agree to U.S. sanctions against Iran and in advancing the Middle East peace process.

During his news conference, Gogitidze said Russian-Syrian ties, which have been cool in recent years, had started to improve in all sectors, including the military and economic fields.

In a statement significant to all Middle East watchers, the envoy said Russia was "keen to strengthen Syria's defensive military capabilities because this would help maintain stability in the Middle East."

The ambassador confirmed that Russian and Syrian forces had conducted joint military exercises in Russia last year and that many Russian military experts were working in Syria.

But he declined to confirm reports of new arms sales to Syria.

According to the Russian daily newspaper Segodnya, an arms plant in the Russian city of Tula has started supplying the Syrian army with more than 1,000 Cornet anti-tank guided missiles.

The sale of the mobile missiles, which have a range of eight miles, would be the largest deal concluded between Russia and Syria since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Segodnya also reported last week that Syria would soon receive long-range surface-to-air missiles from Russia.

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz, which also reported last week on the missile deal, cited Israeli security officials who said they were concerned by the latest developments and that the new anti-tank missiles were "a big step forward" for the Syrian army.

At the same time, however, the newspaper said the Israeli security establishment had not changed its basic opinion that while Syria is preparing a military option, it would probably not trigger a war with Israel in the near future.

The growing ties between Russia and Syria come amid a growing rapprochement between Israel and Turkey — an alliance that has provoked outbursts from Iran and Syria, close allies themselves.

In recent months, Israel and Turkey have implemented major economic agreements and far-reaching military accords that permit each to use the other's air space and air bases.

Among other advantages, the agreements provide Israel with the ability to maintain surveillance of military movements in northern Syria and places its aircraft within potential striking distance of Iran's nascent nuclear facilities.

The Israeli-Turkish relationship is likely to come up during Assad's scheduled visit to Moscow as part of discussions regarding the region's balance of power.

During last week's news conference, Gogitidze said several economic cooperation agreements, including deals on oil and gas, would be signed during Assad's visit, his first since April 1990.

Gogitidze said the current volume of trade between Syria and Russia — about $150 million a year — falls far short of its potential.

He added that Assad would also discuss ideas for breaking the deadlock in the Syrian-Israeli peace talks, which were broken off in March 1996.

The envoy also announced that the issue of Syria's debts to Russia — a long-time source of friction between Moscow and Damascus — had been resolved.

Gogitidze did not reveal a figure, but the debts, which resulted from Syrian purchases of Soviet arms supplies and include still unpaid loans from the former Soviet Union, are estimated at $11 billion.