Russia, Syria sign agreement for major arms deal

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

MOSCOW Russia and Syria have signed an agreement that could pave the way for a major weapons deal.

The two countries signed a military cooperation agreement that would facilitate the sale of Russian weapons to Damascus. Moscow and Damascus also agreed to resolve the dispute over Syria's $13 billion debt to the former Soviet Union.

The agreement was signed in Moscow on Tuesday during the visit by Syrian President Bashar Assad. Officials said Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an accord that would enable Russia to resume major arms sales and upgrades for Syria's military.

"The two countries agree to pursue traditional cooperation in the military-technical sphere in keeping with their mutual interests and international obligations," the Russian Itar-Tass news agency reported.

So far, neither Russia nor Syria announced arms deals during Assad's visit, which began on Jan. 24. But Assad did not rule out Syria's purchase of the SA-18 surface-to-air short-range air defense systems.

"These are defensive weapons, air defense, to prevent aircraft from entering our airspace," Assad said. "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.'"

Officials said the main obstacle to a major Russian arms deal to Syria was an agreement to resolve its debt to Moscow. They said Russia agreed to forgive more than 70 percent of Syria's $13 billion.

"We have resolved the debt issue on mutually acceptable terms, which gives us the basis for long-term cooperation in the future," Putin said.

Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said Moscow wrote off 73 percent of the Syrian debt. Kudrin said 40 percent of the remaining debt would be repaid over the next decade. Kudrin was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that the rest of the debt could be repaid in Syrian products.

Officials said Assad was examining a range of Russian weapons. They included the Iskander-E long-range rocket, anti-tank missiles and the TOR-M1 anti-aircraft defense system.

Syria was said to have signed a $20 million deal for the SA-18 with Russia. But officials said the agreement has been suspended amid Israeli and U.S. opposition.

Copyright 2005 East West Services, Inc.

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