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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Assad Praises Russia, Wins Debt Deal

APPutin and his wife, Lyudmila, greeting Assad and his wife, Asma Akhras, on Tuesday.
Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday praised Moscow and urged it to play a bigger role in international affairs, expressing hope that his country's Cold War patron will balance U.S. dominance in the Middle East and elsewhere.

"Russia's role in the world is very large, and it has a colossal authority, especially in the countries of the Third World," Assad told students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations on Tuesday morning.

"In these countries, there are great hopes that Russia will restore its earlier positions in world affairs," he said, speaking ahead of a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.

In his lecture, Assad tried to play Russia off the United States, using rhetoric starkly reminiscent of the Cold War, when leaders of Third World countries traveled to Moscow to pledge allegiance to socialism in exchange for Soviet military assistance.

"I would like to express support to the political course of Russia and simultaneously express a protest against the political course of the United States," he said.

The Kremlin responded by announcing that Russia will write off some 73 percent of Syria's $13.4 billion debt to Russia.

No public talks were held on the possible sale of arms to Syria, but Assad made it clear that he has considered acquiring shoulder-fired Igla anti-aircraft missiles. "This is a defensive, an air defense weapon," Assad told MGIMO students. "If Israel is against us buying them, that means it wants to invade our airspace. The Israeli stance is illogical."

The United States and Israel had expressed serious concern about reports that Russia might sell missiles to Syria and that a sale might be negotiated during Assad's visit. The two countries said an arms deal might destabilize the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called Putin ahead of the meeting, but secured only a promise that Russia would discuss the issue with Israel after the visit was over, an Israeli official told The Associated Press on Monday.

The U.S. State Department has warned that the Iglas could end up in terrorist hands and condemned Syria for allegedly supporting terrorists.

The Foreign and Defense ministries responded by asserting that Russia has not been negotiating Igla sales to Syria and warning that Russia will not tolerate being pressured on the issue.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday rose to Syria's defense over U.S. pressure to take stronger steps to stop infiltration of militants into Iraq. "The language of threats can only exacerbate the situation," he said, according to the Foreign Ministry's web site.

The Russian press has been awash with speculation that Moscow might try to resume playing the role of patron for Damascus. This would increase Russia's role in the region and might even enable Moscow to mediate an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict -- paving the way for Russia to regain the status of a superpower, Kommersant said, citing unidentified political analysts close to the Kremlin.

Assad told Izvestia that Russia should play a greater role in the Middle East, and he reiterated this call during his meeting with Putin on Tuesday.

Putin said Assad's visit will help to "end a pause" in Russian-Syrian relations, and he called the Syrian president "a worthy successor of his father's traditions." Assad's father, Khafez, ruled Syria for more than 30 years, and it became an outpost of Soviet influence in the Middle East.

In a sign that Moscow is ready to take its relations with Damascus up a notch, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said Russia will write off $9.8 billion of Syria's net debts. It was unclear what Moscow might get in return.

Putin also held closed-door talks with Assad, and the two leaders signed a declaration of friendship. Their ministers signed a package of economic and cultural exchange agreements.

Russia is part of the so-called quartet that is trying to mediate a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The other members of the quartet are the United States, the United Nations and the European Union.

However, post-Soviet Russia has played a secondary role to the United States in the Middle East peace process, and Assad's call for the Kremlin to assume a greater role will probably go unfulfilled, said Irina Zvyagelskaya, a Middle East specialist with the Institute of Oriental Studies.

"Russia doesn't have the money to back up an aggressive foreign policy or even a consistent imperialist foreign-policy strategy," she said. "What we have are irresponsible politicians making often unwise, aggressive declarations with nothing to back them up."