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Monday, July 5, 1999 Published at 17:25 GMT 18:25 UK

World: Middle East

Syrian president seeks Russian support

Syria would like to buy MiG-29s to upgrade its air force

By BBC analyst Konstantin Eggert

The Syrian President Hafez al-Assad has begun a two-day to Russia. It is his 14th visit to Moscow but the first since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He was supposed to visit Russia in April but the trip was postponed, and no clear reasons were given for the delay.

The Moscow diplomatic rumour mill churned out explanations ranging from the Syrian president's poor health to disagreements over the Syrian wish list of arms to be purchased from Russia.

Change of policy

Since April 1990, when President Assad last visited Moscow, Russia's policies in the Middle East have changed considerably.

It has established full diplomatic relations with Israel, started to sell arms to the Gulf states and lived through a period when it closely followed the US line on regional issues only to switch to a more self-assertive position in recent years.

Debt, arms and peace

[ image: President Assad is hoping to hear good news on debt and an arms deal]
President Assad is hoping to hear good news on debt and an arms deal
Assad's agenda in Moscow includes rescheduling Syrian debt to Russia, purchasing new arms and discussing the possibility of Moscow's closer involvement in the Middle East peace process.

On all three there is a lot of ground to cover.

The debt, accumulated over decades of the Soviet Union's almost unlimited support for Damascus, caused significant tensions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when first the Soviet and then the Russian leadership halted all military supplies to Syria until Assad's regime started to tackle the issue.

Deliveries of military spare parts resumed around 1994.

Russia puts the debt at $12bn, while Syria says it is only $10bn.

Diplomatic sources in Moscow indicate that Russia has resigned itself to the idea of long-term restructuring of the Syrian debt. Some experts suggest that Moscow will eventually have to forfeit most of it in order to receive at least partial repayment.

Need to rearm

The debt issue is closely tied to arms sales. The Syrian armed forces are in bad need of thorough modernisation.

Its air force consists of obsolete MiG-21s and a small number of slightly more modern MiG-23s.

According to some estimates, Damascus will need to buy 30 to 50 modern aircraft and significant quantities of surface-to-air missiles to start regaining at least part of its former defence capability.

Last year Russia agreed to sell 1,000 Cornet anti-tank missiles to Damascus, brushing off American criticism.

While Washington keeps Syria on the list of "terrorist states", Moscow is keen to reestablish its traditional alliance with Damascus to boost what it sees as Russia's great power status in the Middle East - and earn some hard cash along the way.

[ image: Russia might be willing to sell Syria S-300 air defence missiles]
Russia might be willing to sell Syria S-300 air defence missiles
The Russians indicated that they are ready to sell MiG-29 fighter-bombers and S-300 air defence missiles.

The question is whether the Syrians can afford to pay for the deliveries. A string of military delegations from Syria went to Moscow this year to agree details of the purchases. It seems likely that the final shopping list will fall short of the $2bn predicted by some defence analysts. The final figure may be only just over half that.

Support on regional issues

The topic of Russia's role in the Middle East peace process is a vital one for President Assad. He seems to be on the verge of reopening dialogue with Israel after Ehud Barak took over from his intransigent predecessor Binyamin Netanyahu.

The ageing Syrian leader wants to ensure at least some back-up from Moscow to counterbalance the United States' overwhelming influence on Middle Eastern affairs.

But with Russia's economic situation unstable and the Kremlin's gaze firmly on the parliamentary and presidential elections over the coming year, it may well turn out that Moscow will not completely live up to President Assad's expectations.

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