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On his trip to Moscow in two weeks, Syrian President Bashar Assad will ask Russia to sign a deal that would deliver advanced Russian weapons systems to the Syrian army. Assad's host, President Vladimir Putin, is leaning toward acceding to the Syrian request. An estimated $1 billion that Syria has earned from rising oil prices will be used to finance the deal.

Although the Russian paper Kommersant reported that the crisis in Israel-Russian relations was due to Syrian interest in the Iskandar missile, a shoulder carried surface-to-air missile - known as the Igla by the Russians and the SA-18 by NATO - is what actually concerns Israel. Israel fears those missiles could endanger air force planes, whether they remain in Syrian hands or are sent to Hezbollah.

The SA-18, which dates back to 1983, and an even more sophisticated missile, the SA-16, which is also from the Igla series, is the current generation of the shoulder launched missile known as Strella. The maximum range of an SA-16 or SA-18 is 5,200 meters, and it carries a two-kilogram explosives warhead. It can home in on heat from a plane's body and not only its engines, and is equipped with anti-jamming electronics. According to Russian publications, the SA-18 will take down one or two of every three planes that are not protected by electronics, and one of three to four planes that are protected.

The export version of the Iskandar, which is the advanced version of the missile known to NATO as the SS-26, was offered to Syria at the start of this decade, but discussions were halted due to Russian demands that Syria pay overdue bills owed to Moscow's incarnation as the Soviet Union.

Last year, Russia completed testing a new version of the Iskandar, and this year it will become part of the routine Russian deployment. Since the Russian army has yet to begin using the missile, it is unlikely that it will be made available for export. One of the main differences between the older and newer version is the range, which at 280 kilometers and a payload less than half a ton, meets the limits set by the multinational non-proliferation treaty for missile technology.

The improved Iskandar is described as highly accurate, and the Russian army plans to use it against missile-to-missile batteries like the Patriot. That's why it is possible that the Syrians want it as a counterweight to the Arrow batteries, even though it would not add a great advantage over the old Scud B, C, and Ds in their hands. Foreign sources estimate that arsenal at some 200 missiles with 48 launchers. A Scud has a 310 km. range, and the missiles already in Syrian hands cover most of Israel.