Assad seek major arms deal in first Moscow visit in 9 years

Special to World

Monday, April 5, 1999

LONDON [MENL] -- Syrian President Hafez Assad plans to visit Moscow later this month as part of an effort by Damascus to complete a huge arms purchase deal with Russia.

Officials in Moscow said Assad will arrive in Moscow on April 13 and will meet with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. The focus of the discussions, they said, will be bilateral relations and the Middle East peace process.

The visit will be Assad's first in nine years. The Syrian president did not visit Moscow since the end of the Cold War.

Diplomatic sources said Assad and his Russian hosts will try to resolve the $11 billion Syrian debt to Moscow. Syria has refused to acknowledge the debt and Russian exports to Damascus has not renewed in nearly a decade.

The sources said Russia has been considering a proposal to forgive 85 percent of the debt. The rest of the debt will be covered by Syrian exports.

The London-based Arabic language daily Al Hayat said on Sunday that Syria appears on the verge of succeeding in raising $1 billion from Iran and Gulf Arab states to buy advanced armaments from Russia. The newspaper said the arms negotiations are stuck over Assad's insistence of long-term payment schedule for the weapons.

Russian officials have insisted that any new arms deal with Syria be based on a cash basis.

Russia has vowed to continue defense cooperation with Syria despite a U.S. decision to impose sanctions on three Russian firms charged with selling anti-tank missiles to Syria. The companies were identified as Tula Design Bureau, the Volsk Mechanical Plant and the Central Research Institute for Machine-Tool Engineering.

"The charges are groundless," Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said.

The Itar-Tass news agency quoted a senior Defense Ministry official as saying that Russia would continue to fulfill defense contracts with Damascus. Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, head of the Defense Ministry's department of international cooperation, said the U.S. decision to impose sanctions is "part of the U.S. political authoritarian policy aimed at ensuring U.S. supremacy in any part of the world."

State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters on Friday that U.S. law, under specific circumstances, bans the transfer of military equipment to any state deemed as a sponsor of terrorism. Syria remains on the State Department list of terrorist states.

The sanctions, Rubin said, will also ban U.S. government procurement from the Russian companies and exports of U.S. munitions to the firms. The sanctions will remain in effect for one year.

Rubin said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has waved sanctions against the Russian government. He said such sanctions on the government would have affected $90 million in U.S. assistance.

"The Secretary makes these decisions," Rubin said. "This is a decision you make based on a variety of circumstances."

Monday, April 5, 1999

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