Official: Syria pressing US to sponsor talks

Defense official says talk of Russian sales of military equipment is a ploy to get US engaged in negotiations.

s-300 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
s-300 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Syrian announcements about potential military deals it is seeking to close with Russia are attempts by Damascus to pressure the United States into providing sponsorship for the peace talks it has been holding with Israel in recent months, a senior defense official said on Saturday. Last Thursday, Syrian President Bashar Assad arrived in Russia for talks with President Dmitry Medvedev during which he reportedly asked to buy an array of military equipment including long-range anti-aircraft missiles and MiG-31 fighter jets. The Russian weapons that most concern Israeli officials are the S-300 surface-to-air missiles and Iskander. Senior defense officials said over the weekend that Israel had no knowledge of Russian plans to sell the weaponry to Syria, and that the request by Assad was likely an attempt to exert pressure on the US to take a more involved position in the Israeli-Syrian peace talks currently taking place under Turkish sponsorship. The officials said that Russia had committed to Israel that it would not sell weaponry to Syria that would violate the regional balance of power in the Middle East. "The Syrians are making noise about the weapons deals to pressure the US to provide sponsorship for the talks," said one Israeli defense official. "The Syrians are hoping to use the talks with Israel to gain more credit and strengthen ties with the US." The news of Assad's reported ambitions prompted immediate hand-wringing amid Israeli officials. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday that Israel was "analyzing the ramifications" of Assad's current visit. Likud MK Silvan Shalom said Israel should demand that Moscow refrain from "arming its enemies." "Arming Syria would lead to a strategic change and could destabilize the Middle East and the world," said Shalom. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country was "ready to consider requests from the Syrian side" on buying more arms. But Lavrov added: "We are indeed prepared to sell only defensive weapons which do not violate the regional balance of power." On Thursday, acting Ambassador Anatoly Yurkov told The Jerusalem Post that Russia had no intention of placing the advanced Iskander missile system in Syria. He made his comments in the wake of an offer by Assad to allow Russia to deploy the short-range solid fuel missiles in his country. The export model of the Iskander is difficult to shoot down and has a 280-km. range. If stationed in Syria, the missiles could deliver conventional explosives to almost anywhere in Israel. "Why would we do that?" Yurkov asked of such a deployment, adding that Russia had no interest in upsetting the strategic balance in the region. Medvedev phoned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday evening to affirm ties between the two countries, and according to unconfirmed news reports, Olmert may visit Moscow in the coming weeks to ask his Russian counterpart not to approve any advanced weapons sales to Syria. The Los Angeles Times contributed to the report