Syria Expected to Reach Arms Deals

APPresident Dmitry Medvedev listening as Syrian President Bashar Assad gestures during talks in Sochi on Thursday.
SOCHI — Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad backed Russia's military action against Georgia at talks with President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday that were expected to cover purchases of Russian arms.

A diplomatic source in Moscow told Interfax on Wednesday that Russia and Syria were preparing a number of deals involving anti-aircraft and anti-tank missile systems.

Syria, a foe of Israel in the Middle East that stands accused by the United States of supporting international terrorism, became only the second country after Belarus to voice public backing for Russia's operation in Georgia.

"We understand the essence of the Russian position and its military response," Assad told Medvedev at their meeting in the Kremlin leader's Black Sea residence, Bocharov Ruchei.

"We believe Russia was responding to the Georgian provocation," the Syrian president said.

Russia drew Western condemnation, led by the United States, when it mounted a crushing military offensive in response to Georgia's attempt two weeks ago to recapture the rebel, pro-Russian province of South Ossetia.

Moscow says it was forced to act to avert bloodshed in South Ossetia and defend Russian nationals and peacekeepers from the Georgian attack, though Tbilisi says Moscow engineered the conflict.

"I want to express my support for the Russian position in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. … We oppose attempts to tarnish Russia's position," Assad said.

A deal signed by Washington and Warsaw this week to deploy elements of a U.S. missile-defense system in Poland has further aggravated Moscow's relations with the West.

Assad's visit is likely to become an additional irritant for Washington. In the past, the United States has more than once warned Moscow against selling arms to Syria.

Syria is interested in Russia's Pantsyr-S1 air-defense missile system, the BUK-M1 surface-to-air medium-range missile system, military aircraft and other hardware, Interfax quoted its diplomatic source as saying.

National media quoted Assad as saying ahead of the visit that Syria was ready to negotiate hosting Russian surface-to-surface Iskander missiles, mid-range weapons which Moscow says are capable of beating any missile defense.

Neither leader mentioned arms deals in their initial remarks.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, asked by reporters about plans to sell Iskander missiles and other modern weapons to Syria, said, "We are ready to consider requests from the Syrian side on buying more arms."

"We are indeed prepared to sell only defensive weapons that don't break the regional balance of powers," Lavrov said.

Lavrov said arms sales were part of Thursday's talks but did not elaborate.