Russia fumes at claim it flamed tension with Syria

Moscow envoy Andrey Demidov tells 'Post' bilateral ties could be harmed following Israeli accusation.

assad in uniform 298 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
assad in uniform 298 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Top Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad's accusation on Thursday that Russia was partly responsible for recent tensions between Syria and Israel could undermine Israeli-Russian relations, a senior Russian diplomat in Tel Aviv told The Jerusalem Post. Andrey Demidov, the No. 2 official at the Russian Embassy, said he was "disappointed" and "regretted" reports published Thursday that Russia was largely behind tensions between Syria and Israel, in an effort to increase arms sales to Damascus. "And I regret the statement made by Amos Gilad, because it can only undermine our relations," Demidov said. Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Military Bureau, said in an Army Radio interview, "At a certain time, the Russians caused the Syrians to believe that Israel was preparing for war. "I think that they have stopped this," Gilad added. "Syria is not planning on attacking Israel, and Israel is definitely not planning on attacking Syria." Demidov said he had no intention of meeting with Gilad or speaking with him to get clarification of his comments. "Yesterday he said one thing, tomorrow he will say another thing. I only regret it," Demidov said. The Defense Ministry refused to respond to the diplomat's comments. Moscow "very, very much values the present state of relations between Russia and Israel, and won't do anything to undermine it, Demidov said. "How can we be hostile to a country where more than one million of our compatriots live," he said. "We need Israel for economic and scientific cooperation. For example, we can enrich ourselves through scientific and economic knowledge here more than in Syria. Our cooperation can be more efficient here than in Syria. I believe that we have more interests here than in Damascus." Demidov said, however, that comments such as Gilad's and press reports like those saying Russia was banging the drums of war in Syria only made building ties more difficult. For instance, he said, these types of reports made planning for the visit of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, scheduled for October, more difficult. Western sources said recently that Syria was told that the US would attack Iran by the end of the year and that Israel would use the opportunity to strike at Syria. As a result, President Bashar Assad set off on a massive military buildup that included training his forces, reinforcing positions along the Golan Heights and purchasing large amounts of weaponry from Russia. Demidov said he had not "seen reports of the kind." He added that Russia was "not happy about military preparations on both sides, and it is not our aim to instigate one party or another." Demidov also said he knew nothing of claims made by defense officials Thursday that more than 1,000 Russian military advisers were currently stationed in Syria. The sources said the Russian military personnel were also assisting Syria in upgrading its weapons platforms and military infrastructure. Demidov also would not confirm widespread press reports that Russia began delivering advanced antimissile missiles to Damascus earlier this month, saying that Russia has only sold Syria air defense missiles to protect Assad's palace, buzzed by the IAF a few years back. Contradicting a widespread assumption in Jerusalem, Demidov said Russian arms sales to Syria were not primarily motivated by an economic interest in "feeding" the huge Russian military/industrial complex. "We have arms sales to different countries," he said. "If there are no arms sales to Syria we can sell to Venezuela, as well as to China and to India," he said. The diplomat said Moscow sold weapons to Syria and to Iran because "we have good relations with them, and because they asked for defensive weapons." He reiterated Russia's position that it would not sell weapons that would tip the balance of power in the region. "We take into account Israel's concerns in considering whether to supply certain kinds of weapons to one country or another," he said, although he would not provide specific examples. "We always remember the promise given by President [Vladimir] Putin to then-prime minister [Ariel] Sharon not to do anything that could change the balance of power in the region," he said. Putin offered to sell arms to Israel during his visit here in 2005, Demidov said, but was told by one Israeli official: "Why should we buy weapons from Russia when we get them free from the US." Asked why Russia was selling weapons to Syria and Iran if money wasn't the primary consideration, he said such deals were one way to be a "key actor" in the region. "First of all, we have a history of relations [with these countries]," he said. "We consider ourselves to be an active player in the region, and want others to consider us one of the key actors in the region." Regarding reports that Russia was interested in reestablishing a naval base in Syria, Demidov said that what was being discussed was a "supply point" in the Mediterranean for the Russian fleet, but that no decision had been made where this would be, and that Greece and Cyprus were also under consideration. During the Cold War the Soviets used the Syrian port of Tartus as a supply point for their naval presence in the Mediterranean. The head of Russia's navy, Adm. Vladimir Masorin, said earlier this month that "the Mediterranean Sea is very important strategically for the Black Sea Fleet. I propose that, with the involvement of the Northern and Baltic fleets, the Russian Navy should restore its permanent presence there." The idea was to return to a situation that existed during the days of the Soviet Union, Demidov said, when Russia had a permanent presence in the Mediterranean. "Of course if they're there, they will have to get supplies," he said, repeating, however, that no decision had been made to establish the "supply point" in Syria. Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.