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Syria-Russia Relations Important to Both (AP) By SAM F. GHATTAS BEIRUT, LEBANON 01/27/05 2:14 AM)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A40470-2005Jan27.html AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
BEIRUT, Lebanon - Syria and Russia, one-time allies driven apart by the collapse of the Soviet Union and brought closer again by American policies, both stand to gain from a relationship reinvigorated by Syrian President Bashar Assad´s visit to Moscow.

The four-day visit, which began Monday, is the first by the young Syrian leader to Moscow since he took office in 2000 after the death of his father, the late President Hafez Assad, who ruled for three decades and was a close ally of the Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s.

Already, Bashar Assad has clinched a debt-reduction package that wrote off nearly three-quarters of Syria´s $13.4 billion debt owed largely to the former Soviet Union for military purchases. But economics plays a supporting role to political and strategic interests, regardless of whether he returns home with a controversial arms deal.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, strengthening relations with Syria means consolidating a Middle East foothold that was a cornerstone of Soviet policy but was lost somewhat as American influence grew. Russia also seeks to balance its often tense ties with the United States and other Western countries by pursuing close relations with Mideast and Asian nations, many of which were friends in the Soviet era.

For Syria, Moscow could help offset rapidly growing U.S. pressure.

Washington has condemned Damascus for dominating neighboring Lebanon politically and militarily. Already under U.S. sanctions as a sponsor of terrorism, Syria also is accused of allowing insurgents to slip into Iraq to fight U.S.-led forces and the Iraqi government they protect.

Beyond the tens of thousands of U.S. troops just across its border in Iraq, Syria fears Israel´s military superiority on another border. Syria´s military, armed by the Soviet Union for decades, lags behind Israel´s modern army.

"The most important factor for the Syrians and the Russians is the American occupation of Iraq, for it has upset the two countries´ position and standing in the region and the world," said Sateh Noureddine, managing editor of Lebanon´s As-Safir newspaper.

"Russia has only Syria in the Middle East, and to a certain extent Syria has only Russia in the world after its relations with the West have soured," he said in an interview in Beirut.

A close relationship solves Syria´s debt problem and opens the field for military cooperation, "which contributes toward a balance with Israel," he added.

Assad said in Moscow that military-technical cooperation would be discussed and he defended his country´s right to buy anti-aircraft missiles from Russia despite strong Israeli objections.

Syria also may find in Russia a supportive voice on the U.N. Security Council, where Washington and Paris recently engineered a resolution that demanded Syria withdraw its army from Lebanon. Veto-wielding Russia abstained in that vote.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has lost much of its regional clout to the distress of Arab allies that considered it a counterbalance to strong U.S. support for Israel. The Americans have led the way, although Russia and the European Union are partners with the United States and the United Nations in the so-called Quartet trying to revive the Mideast peace process.

The Soviet Union was the main arms supplier of Israel´s Arab foes. By contrast, relations between today´s Russia and Israel have significantly warmed.

Still, Assad welcomed a stronger Russian role in the Middle East. "We highly value your positions and we share common interests," he told Putin.

Back home, Syrian state-run media were more blunt in explaining the close Syrian-Russian relationship.

An editorial in Al-Thawra newspaper Tuesday described Russia as the "objective counterweight in the international (power) equation which is currently titled toward the Americans."

Lebanese analyst Ali Hamadeh warned in an editorial in the daily An- Nahar that Syria should not count on Putin´s Russia in a confrontation with the West. Putin, angry over the U.S. position on Ukrainian elections, merely "seeks from the excessive publicity of Assad´s visit to make the Americans feel that he, too, can annoy them in a sensitive area of the world." --- Sam F. Ghattas, based in Beirut, has covered the Middle East for the AP for two decades. (Copyright 2005 Associated Press. 01/27/05)

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