Syrian Arms Talk Likely to Rile West

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might be hoping to capitalize on Moscow's current diplomatic isolation to expand military cooperation with Russia as he meets with President Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi on Thursday.

But even though a defiant Kremlin might be taking some perverse pleasure in welcoming the leader of what the United States has branded a "rogue state" at a time when some voices in the West suggest that Russia is on its own way to pariah status, analysts said it was unlikely that any significant arms deals would be signed.

In interviews given to Russian media ahead of his visit, Assad said he hoped to speed up bilateral military cooperation.

"Arms purchases are very important," Assad said in an interview published Wednesday in Kommersant.

Analysts said any significant new deals with Damascus, already the fourth-largest purchaser of the Russian arms, are unlikely, as Russia will want to be careful not to upset Israel, with which its relations have moderately improved as of late.

At the same time, when Russia's ties with the West perhaps at their lowest since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow could be looking for any international support it can get.

"As the French saying goes, in the absence of better options, the king sleeps with the queen," said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

The visit to Sochi, where Medvedev is on a working vacation, comes at the invitation of the Kremlin.

On Tuesday, Medvedev hosted Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who offered Russia his support and said its handling of the conflict in Georgia was "excellent, very calm, wise and beautiful."

After Russian forces drove back an attempt by the Georgian military to retake control of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia and moved into Georgia, U.S. President George W. Bush gave unambiguous support to Tbilisi and threatened Russia with serious consequences if it did not withdraw from Georgia proper.

European leaders took a more measured approach, but many charged Russia with overreacting and also promised consequences if the Kremlin did not cooperate fully.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said that by refusing even to consider Moscow's position on the conflict, Washington "is pushing Russia to join the forces that the United States wants to weaken."

Assad said the Georgian conflict only highlighted the need for Russia and Syria to forge closer ties, as the countries were now in a similar international position.

"The war unleashed by Georgia is the culmination of attempts to encircle and isolate Russia, " he said in the Kommersant interview. "I think the role of Israel and its consultants in the Georgian crisis is now clear in Russia and in the world."

Assad also said Syria was willing to help boost Russia's security in any way it could. In an interview with Gazeta, also published Wednesday, he said he was open to cooperation in relation to the Syrian port of Tartus.

The two countries were preparing a series of deals involving anti-aircraft and anti-tank missile systems, Interfax reported Wednesday, citing a diplomatic source.

"Damascus is Moscow's long-standing partner in the military sphere, and we expect to reach agreement in principle on new weapons deals," the source said.

Analysts were skeptical that Thursday's talks would yield any significant new agreements.

Pukhov said Russia was reluctant to upset Israel, because it could be a "valuable source of modern military technologies."

He was joined by Lukyanov, of Russia in Global Affairs, in pointing out that Israel had recalled its military consultants from Georgia before the start of the conflict.

"Israel cooperated, and it should be noted that Moscow appreciated this," Lukyanov said.

Moscow has said Israel supplied explosives and military vehicles to Georgia, as well as the consultants.

Syria, meanwhile, is a poor country, Pukhov said, and therefore has little to offer Russia.

He added that Russia might be even more reticent to part with offensive weapons like Iskander missile systems under new conditions when, hypothetically, it could need to contain countries like Poland and Georgia.

Russia also does not have the necessary modern vessels to establish a naval base in Syria, Pukhov said.

The signing of an agreement in Warsaw on Wednesday to base elements of a U.S. missile-defense system in Poland was likely to fuel a desire in the Kremlin to use the meeting with the Syrian leader to signal its displeasure, but in the long run "Russia will be much more careful," Lukyanov said.

The Kremlin said in a statement Wednesday that Syria was "one of Russia's key partners in the Middle East" and praised growing economic cooperation and energy ties. From 2000 and 2007, trade between the two countries grew by 500 percent, topping $1 billion last year, the statement said.

The Kremlin made no mention of military cooperation or possible future deals.

The trip will be Assad's third visit to Russia and the meeting his first with Medvedev. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin does not plan to meet with the Syrian leader, said Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman.