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Closer Russian-Syrian Ties Get Scrutiny on Capitol Hill


A group of Middle East experts has expressed concern about the warming of relations between Russia and Syria, and the implications of such growing ties on the region.

Washington is taking note of the strengthening political and military ties between Russia and Syria.

Russia has agreed to provide Syria, which the United States considers a state-sponsor of terrorism, with an unspecified number of SA-18 low-altitude surface-to-air missiles. The agreement comes despite objections from the United States, and Russia's commitments as a participating state of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe not to support terrorist regimes.

Russia also is writing off nearly three quarters of the $13 billion in debt that Damascus owes Moscow. The move was announced during Syrian President Bashar Assad's state visit to Russia in January.

At a hearing of the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. agency that monitors compliance with the Helsinki Accords, a group of experts warned of the implications of the growing ties between Moscow and Damascus.

Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, said continued Russian support for Syria could hamper efforts toward democratic change in Lebanon, as well as any hope for such change in Syria.

There are signs that Lebanon's Cedar Revolution, as it is being called, could spark internal change within the Syrian regime itself," Mr. Berman says. "The assistance from Moscow, whether it is economic incentives or military sales, constitutes a major lifeline for the Syrian regime. It is a lifeline that will provide the Syrian government with greater resources and greater capabilities to resist pro-independence stirrings in Lebanon or in its own country.

Mr. Berman says Damascus is welcoming Moscow's support amid concerns about U.S. motives in the region.

"As a result of its Ba'athist credentials, as well as its as a major state sponsor of terror, Syria sees itself as the next possible candidate for U.S.-assisted regime change, and is trying very hard to prevent that from coming to pass," he added.

Russia, in turn, has much to gain from the relationship with Syria. Terrorism expert Steven Emerson says Moscow wants to increase its influence in the Middle East:

"It has sought increasingly to basically play a countervailing weight to the United States in almost a replication of the Cold War strategy," Mr. Emerson says. "It receives cash, it also receives support in exchange. It has an extension of its political hegemony that it can impose. For all its worth, there has not been enough of a disincentive for Russia to stop its support of Syria."

Mr. Emerson says Moscow's strategy is only hurting its own efforts in the war on terrorism.

"The tragic irony of what Russia is doing has not been lost. Although Russia justifiably wants Western support in its war against Islamic terrorists operating in Chechnya, at the very same time, Russia is arming terrorist-supporting regimes and movements directly and indirectly that have allied themselves with the very terrorists that have carried out the horrific Beslan attack last year that killed some 700 Russians, most of them children," he added.

Mr. Emerson and other experts noted that Russia has joined international calls for Syria to completely withdraw from Lebanon. But they say Moscow has not matched its rhetoric with steps to roll back its strategic ties with Damascus.

Mr. Emerson said the United States should make clear to Russia that the sale of SA-18 missiles to Syria will disrupt any economic and technical relationships between Washington and Moscow. He says if that fails to persuade Russian president Vladimir Mr. Putin, then the United States should "ratchet up" political and economic pressure on Russia to levels that have not been imposed since the end of the Cold War.