MOSCOW (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Wednesday he will use this week’s visit to Russia to expand military ties with Moscow whose arms sales to the Middle Eastern state have angered the West.
Israel and the United States have long urged Russia not to sell weapons to Syria -- a key Moscow ally during the Cold War now at the centre of Kremlin ambitions of reviving Russia’s Soviet-era role in the Middle East.
Assad told Kommersant newspaper that Russia’s conflict with Georgia, in which Moscow says Georgia used Israeli-supplied equipment, underlined the need for Russia and Syria to tighten their defense cooperation.
“Of course military and technical cooperation is the main issue. Weapons purchases are very important,” he said. “I think we should speed it up. Moreover, the West and Israel continue to put pressure on Russia.”
Al-Assad is expected to met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday.
A diplomatic source in Moscow told Interfax news agency that Russia and Syria were preparing a number of deals involving anti-aircraft and anti-tank missile systems.
“Damascus is Moscow’s long-standing partner in military cooperation and we are expecting to reach an agreement in principle on new weapons deals,” said the source.
Syria is also interested in Russia’s Pantsyr-S1 Air Defense Missile systems, BUK-M1 surface-to-air medium-range missile system, military aircraft and other hardware, the source said.
Russia’s military said this week Israel supplied military vehicles and explosives to Georgia and helped train its army.
Israel says it does not supply arms to other countries as a government but private firms conduct equipment sales and training with the defense ministry’s approval.
Assad, whose army is largely equipped with Russian-designed military hardware, said Israel’s role would only encourage countries like Syria -- a U.S. foe and ally of Iran -- to step up cooperation with Russia.
“I think that in Russia and in the world everyone is now aware of Israel’s role and its military consultants in the Georgian crisis,” Assad told Kommersant.
“And if before in Russia there were people who thought these forces can be friendly then now I think no one thinks that way.”
The West and NATO have sharply criticized Russia over its military action in Georgia this month. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Russia was turning into an outlaw in the conflict and accused Moscow of targeting civilians in Georgia.
The conflict between Georgia and Russia erupted when Georgia tried to reimpose control over the breakaway, pro-Russian South Ossetia region earlier this month. Russia responded with a counter-attack that overwhelmed Georgian forces.
Russia then moved troops beyond South Ossetia and a second separatist region, Abkhazia, and deep into Georgian territory.
Writing by Maria Golovnina
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