Syria, Russia to restore Soviet-era ties

01-25-2005, 18h21

Russia and Syria pledged to restore Soviet-era ties, striking an accord on Damascus' debts to Moscow and future military cooperation despite Israel's apparent success in torpedoing Russian weapons sales to its arch-enemy.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose visit to Moscow provoked a row between Israel and Russia over reported plans to sell advanced Russian missiles to Syria, signed a declaration with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on defence ties.

In the statement, inked after Kremlin talks, Moscow and Damascus agreed to "pursue traditional cooperation in the military-technical sphere in keeping with their mutual interests and international obligations," ITAR-TASS reported.

Earlier, the Syrian president, whose country has been branded by the United States as a sponsor of international terrorism, said it had the right to acquire weapons to protect itself against Israeli air attack.

"These are defensive weapons, air defence, to prevent aircraft from entering our airspace," Assad said, asked to comment on the reported contract for portable Igla anti-aircraft missiles, now seen in doubt because of Israeli and US pressure.

"If Israel is against us acquiring them, it's as if it was saying 'We want to attack Syria but we don't want them to protect themselves,'" he told students at the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations (MGIMO).

Putin vowed to reinvigorate lapsed ties between Moscow and Damascus, a former Soviet client state which has traditionally been a major purchaser of Russian weapons.

"Syria is a country with which the Soviet Union and today's Russia have always had particularly warm relations," Putin told Assad as the two men met in the gilded splendour of the Kremlin.

The Russian president regretted that there had been "a long pause" since the last visit of a Syrian leader to Moscow but expressed the hope that they could revive "a tradition of friendship and cooperation that is decades-old."

In a breakthrough, the two sides reached a deal on writing off more than 70 percent of the 13 billion dollars (10 billion euros) of Syria's debts mainly incurred from arms purchases during the Soviet era.

The Syrian leader arrived in Moscow Monday on a four-day state visit overshadowed by furious Israeli protests over the reported contracts for Russian missiles that would erode the Jewish state's military edge over its arch-foe Damascus.

Despite official denials, Russian commentators Tuesday said that the sale of Igla missiles and Iskanker-E next-generation missiles capable of striking Israel had been in the pipeline but had been shelved after Israeli and US protests.

However, the Russian weapons industry continues to regard Syria as an important export market.

Assad, 39, who became president in 2000 after the death of his father who had ruled Syria for 30 years, discussed a range of major issues with Putin including the situation in the Middle East and Iraq and bilateral economic ties.

His visit to Russia, the first by a Syrian head of state since 1999, is seen as an opportunity to put relations on a better footing after years of decline since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Traditionally close to Arab states, Moscow in recent years has built warm ties with Israel because of the sizeable Russian Jewish immigrant population there and cooperation in anti-terrorism.

Russia, one of the four international sponsors of the Middle East peace process, is hoping to use renewed influence with Syria to boost its role in the region while Damascus wants Russian help in securing the return of the Golan Heights from Israel captured in the 1967 war, analysts said.