Assad Cashes in Big, Reopens Middle East Doors to Russia

A joint Russian-Syrian team carefully choreographed Syrian president Bashar Assad’s Sochi talks with the Russian president and a Syrian military delegation’s arms shopping trip to Moscow Aug. 20-21. They were to be the first steps in the Kremlin’s retribution for the US-Polish missile interceptor treaty.

Whereas the United States and Europe were braced for a hostile Russian move in the Baltic, the future site of the missile shield, Moscow opted for payback in the Mediterranean.

Monday, Aug. 18, a large Russian flotilla sailed out of the big Russian naval base of Murmansk on the Barents Sea. It was led by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier and included the Russian navy’s biggest missile cruiser, the Moskva and at least four submarines armed with nuclear missiles.

In a flurry of telephone conversations, Assad consented to the warships taking up permanent berths at the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus.

Thursday morning, he told reporters quite frankly that he had been persuaded to agree to Russia installing missiles on Syrian territory by the repercussions of the Georgian conflict.

He spoke in terms of two Cold War-style blocs, East and West, indicating that he had opted to side with the former.

He therefore intended to revive the close military relations Damascus maintained with the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s: Syria would give Moscow the Mediterranean bases it sought, while gaining Russian nuclear, air and naval protection as well as a supply of modern arms. Syrian-Iranian ties were thrown into the deal.


Moscow moves into lead position of anti-West bloc


According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East experts, this development has profound strategic import for the region; it has touched off a process for placing Moscow in the lead position of a new-old regional bloc consisting of Syria, Iran, the Lebanese Hizballah which virtually rules Beirut, and the radical Palestinian movement.

That is not all. The first pro-West Arab ruler offering to jump aboard was Jordan’s King Abdullah, who notified Moscow Thursday morning, Aug. 21 that he was on his way.

While still evolving, this development finally lays to rest the crumbling strategy whereby by George W. Bush, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ehud Olmert hoped to draw Syria into the American orbit and away from Iranian influence. The Georgian conflict had the effect of cementing the Syrian-Iranian bond. Assad is opening the Middle East door to Moscow, cashing in on Russia’s need to best America in a world arena.

On arriving in the Russian Black Sea resort to meet President Dimitry Medvedev, the Syrian ruler told the Kommersant newspaper that he would use the talks to expand his military ties with Moscow.

“Of course, military and technical cooperation are the main issue,” he said. “Weapons purchases are very important. I think we should speed it up.”

Assad then sounded off on inter-power relations: “The West and Israel continue to put pressure on Russia. I think that in Russia and everyone in the world is now aware of Israel’s role and its military advisers in the Georgian crisis.”

He was later quoted as saying that, after the Georgians had obtained weapons from Israel, there was no reason why Syria should not be supplied by Russia.


Georgia conflict is Assad’s ace-in-the-hole


Assad did not come to Sochi to be patronized, but to present a bill for his services, with no more shilly-shallying: the most advanced hardware Russia’s arms industry can produce. In 2005, and again in 2006, Moscow promised Damascus top-of-the-line weapons systems but either failed to deliver or else released them in tiny dribs and drabs.

Vladimir Putin, then president and now prime minister, found it expedient to block the flow, whether in response to US-Israeli arm-twisting, or his own Middle East calculations.

The Georgian confrontation has swept these considerations away.

When he set out for the Black Sea resort, the Syrian leader sent a military delegation to Moscow to check out at close hand the products of the Kalinin Machines Plant, the Russian weapons manufacturing giant near the capital.

Those products include the highly sophisticated anti-air missiles – the S-300 and BUK M, which the Syrians are eager to buy.

But most of all, Damascus covets the Iskander SS-26 short-range surface missile, codenamed “Stone” in the West.

The version for domestic use has a range of 400 km; the export model only 280 km. But its 480-kg warhead is accurate to within 20 meters of target.

The US and NATO members have never developed a comparable weapon to the Iskander, which is designed to strike large and small targets alike and use the speed and flexibility of its carrier vehicle to outmaneuver most air defenses and electronic systems existing today.

One missile expert has commented: “Even in small quantities, this weapon can radically alter the balance of strength in local arenas.”

In 2005, Assad offered cash for the Iskander’s expeditious delivery. But prior to the Georgian conflict, Putin kept it out of Syrian hands. Although he never took his commitment to sell the weapon to Syria off the table, he also kept his promise to President Bush and Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to hold it back.


Moscow may be more forthcoming with top-grade weapons


Now the Syrians have a good chance of laying their hands on this prize.

The Syrian ruler is also eying Russian S-300 MU2 Favorit anti-air missiles, which are capable of shooting down airplanes and missiles, both ballistic and cruise.

During his last visit to Moscow in September 2006, Assad was taken around the air defense base near Moscow and shown these batteries, priced at $600 million each. At the end of the tour, he signed up for the purchase of four S-300 MU2 batteries for $2.4 million, with an option for another two.

The Syrian and Russian negotiators agreed that the sale would be included in Iran’s purchases from Moscow and paid for by Tehran.

The S-300 MU2 would enable Syria to attack Israeli warplanes and missiles while still in Israeli airspace, as well as targeting jets taking off from US and European aircraft carriers cruising in the eastern Mediterranean.

However, here too, the Russians refrained from delivering the weapons.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources reveal that, this time the Syrian ruler will ask the Russian leaders to use Syria as a way-station for consignments of the missiles to Iran, leaving a few batteries behind in Syria.

This stratagem was used before; in August 2007, when 10 Russian Pantsyr-S1 anti-air units were consigned to Syria, roughly half were transshipped to Iran and the rest stayed behind.

They did not do the Syrians much good. The Israeli warplanes which struck their North Korean nuclear reactor last September knocked out the Pansyr-S1’s radar and tracking systems. Russia then held up supplies for Syria and Iran alike.

Assad hopes they will now be resumed. His extra-heavy shopping list from Russia also includes Mig-31 fighter-bombers.

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