On Eve of Assad Visit to Moscow, Israel and Russia Discuss Security

Syrian president says Israeli aid to Georgia is pushing other states to closer military ties with Russia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke on the phone Wednesday evening, and discussed the situation in the Middle East and the Caucasus.

Olmert gave Medvedev an overview of Israel's current diplomatic position with the Palestinians and Syria, and the two also discussed the crisis between Russia and Georgia.

The discussion came one day before Syrian president Bashar Assad is scheduled to arrive in Moscow for a two-day visit, which has been described by analysts as important at a time when Moscow may be considering closer ties with the Arab world.

Assad told Russia's Kommersant newspaper on Wednesday that he would use his visit to expand military ties with Moscow, whose arms sales to the Middle Eastern state have angered Israel and the United States.

He said 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.

Assad is expected to have talks with 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."

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.

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 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.

Syrian media have described Assad's visit to Moscow as "a working visit" to discuss closer ties in a variety of unspecified areas.

A number of reports in recent months have mentioned large arms deals between Russia and Syria, including advanced anti-aircraft missile systems.

Russian and Syrian analysts have both said that Israel's military assistance to Georgia has paved the way for a particularly successful visit for the Syrian president, whose country has taken a clear stance on the side of Moscow in the recent conflict in the Caucasus.

"The significant military assistance provided by Israel to Georgia in its war against Russia will affect in the future - and probably in the near future - ties between Russia and Israel, and Russia's attitude toward Arab states," a Russian analyst said in an interview to Syrian television. "Russia will re-examine its ties with Israel, and it is not unlikely that Moscow will now decide to increase its military assistance to Arab countries in conflict with Israel, including Syria."

Russia has held up the transfer of certain weapons systems to Syria and Iran as a result of U.S. and Israeli pressure, but now there is hope in Damascus that the situation will change in their favor, and Russia will authorize the arms sales.