By Yossef Bodansky

Damascus is convinced that it has guarantees from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and perhaps other former Soviet states that it can purchase the latest weapon systems if it can pay for them or arrange for others to foot the bill. Iran has already agreed to finance still undetermined deals with Kazakhstan and the Ukraine.

Most important, however, are the numerous deals with Russia not only because of their magnitude, but because of the ramifications of the sense of urgency and priorities expressed by Damascus. The Syrian approach to defining their priorities clearly demonstrates the Syrian continued preoccupation with the possibility of an imminent major war against Israel.

The primary weapon systems in this latest round of deals with Russia are advanced models of the MiG-29 that are vastly superior to the MiG-29s currently in the service of the Syrian Air Force, and S-300 surface-to-air missiles with anti-missile capabilities that are superior to the American Patriot. Syria is also purchasing several sub-systems to upgrade existing Syrian weapon systems, mainly tanks and artillery, as well as various types of missiles (both air-to-air and surface-to-air) for the replenishment of its stockpiles. The Russians also offered the MiG-31 long-range interceptor, but there is no evidence of a Syrian interest at this stage.

Damascus feels a sense of urgency and has embarked on an intense effort to raise additional funds. Indeed, during their early May visit to numerous Persian Gulf states, Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara requested emergency donations of several hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for these weapons. Having been briefed by Khaddam on Syria's needs for these weapons in order to withstand Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE agreed to provide lavish financial assistance.

Significantly, this latest request for emergency funds comes on top of an earlier Syrian fund raising completed in January. At that time, Damascus received between 200 and 300 million dollars. These funds were used to finance a deal with Russia for additional Su-24 long-range strike aircraft, and with North Korea for NK-SCUD-Cs and NoDong-1s ballistic missiles.

More important, Damascus realized that the mere availability of hard currency in cash made Moscow amenable to discussing further deals despite the lingering Syrian debt. (This debt is much smaller than the often discussed 10-15 billion dollars because Iran had already paid a lot since 1991 to induce Russian military assistance to both Iran and Syria.)

In early February 1997, Damascus formally asked Moscow to send senior military experts to formulate a thorough modernization plan for the Syrian Armed Forces. The Syrians told the Russians they would like to upgrade their arms in three areas. According to Russian diplomatic sources, the Syrian order of priorities is the Air Defense Forces, ground forces, and the Air Force. Significantly, the Syrians stressed the need to replace their arsenals, rather than upgrade existing weapon systems. This is an illogical approach for a cash-strapped country like Syria unless Damascus was anticipating the need to replace heavy losses -- a likely outcome of a war. Moscow decided to respond positively.

Indeed, a high level Russian military delegation, including both senior officers and experts from Rosvoorouzhenie and MAPO, Russia's main arms exporters, stayed in Damascus for two weeks in the first half of April. The delegation completed a thorough examination of the needs of the Syrian Armed Forces, particularly the Air Force and the Air Defense Forces, and conducted close consultations with the Syrian High Command. The Russians offered the MiG-29s, the MiG-31s, and the S-300s. The Syrians put the latest model MiG-29s at the top of the list and the S-300 a second priority.

On the primary weapon systems of the ground forces, primarily main battle tanks, the Russians offered a more complex program. They urged the Syrians to quickly upgrade existing tanks with fire-control and communication systems as a substitute for the South African system denied to them. The Russian experts convinced Damascus that, barring complications due to Syria's inability to meet payment arrangements, the up-grade will be completed quickly for the Syrians to be able to have these systems operational within a couple of months. Significantly, this upgrade comes on-top Damascus's continued interest in a large-scale replacement of large quantities of older tanks and combat vehicles.

Thus, in late April, 1997, Russia and Syria have reached an agreement about the renewal of advanced Russian weapons supplies, with the MiG-29s and S-300s topping the list. Additional large-scale deals are in the pipeline.


Yossef Bodansky is the Freeman Center's World Terrorism Analyst.

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