Syrian President Hafez Assad ended a two-day visit to Moscow today amid signs that Russia may sell his country the arms he wants to strengthen his hand in any Middle East peace talks.
Without directly referring to Syria, Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin said arms exports will help bolster Russia's defense as well as its global influence.
"Russia has big potential to export weapons," he told the Russian Tass news agency just before Assad met with President Boris Yeltsin.
The Interfax news agency reported earlier that Assad would discuss the possible purchase of Su-27 fighter jets, T-80 tanks and antitank and antiaircraft weapons to Syria, according to the Associated Press.
Any new weapons deals with Syria may further strain U.S.-Russian relations and almost surely will spark protests from Israel.
In Washington, which considers Syria a sponsor of terrorism, the State Department reiterated warnings that it might cancel $50 million in aid to Russia if it completes new weapons contracts with Damascus.
"We would be very concerned about any new Russian arms sales to Syria or to any other designated state sponsor of terrorism," said deputy spokesman James Foley.
Assad flew to Moscow at a time when the election of a new Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, has revived hope for Middle East peace talks after a three-year stalemate. Syria would be a key player if talks resume, and Assad wants Russia's support for its positions. Moscow cosponsored peace talks in the past and is eager for any opportunity to show that it still wields influence on the world stage.
Yeltsin, who called the Syrian president "an old friend of Russia," discussed the prospects for peace in a 40-minute closed door meeting with Assad. In a joint communique released later by the Kremlin, the two presidents said Barak's election opens the possibility of "constructive efforts" toward peace. Assad said Russia "can play an important role" in the peace process, according to the Syrian news agency.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Russia wants Israel and Syria to pick up talks from where they left off in 1996.
Of major concern to Syria, if talks are revived, is the two-thirds of the Golan Heights region that Israel has occupied since 1967.
No details were provided on any arms sales discussions, but before Assad left, he met with Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev. The Syrian military is almost entirely equipped with Russian weaponry from the Cold War era, but much of it is in disrepair or obsolete.
A five-year, $2 billion contract is said to be under discussion. That would represent a significant increase in Syrian arms spending. Syria still owes Russia roughly $12 billion from past purchases, but is now ready to pay cash. "Assad . . . will not leave Moscow empty-handed," predicted the newspaper Izvestia.
In April, the United States announced sanctions against three Russian companies after a State Department investigation showed that they had supplied antitank missile complexes to Syria. Washington prohibited American groups from cooperating with the Russian firms.
Russian officials said the arms sales did not violate any international bans nor disrupt the balance of power in the Middle East.