Syria hopes to expand military ties with Russia

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Wednesday he will use a visit to Russia to expand military ties with Moscow, whose arms sales to the Middle Eastern state have angered Israel and the United States.

He told Russia’s 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.

Al-Assad is expected to have talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during his visit this week.

“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.”

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 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.”

Israel has long urged Russia not to sell weapons to Syria. Damascus was a Moscow ally during the Cold War and is now key to the Kremlin’s ambitions to reviving its Soviet-era role in the region.

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 on August 7-8. Russia responded with a massive counter-attack that overwhelmed Georgian forces.

Russia then moved troops beyond South Ossetia and a second separatist region, Abkhazia, and deep into Georgian territory.

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