U.S. Warns Russia on Syrian Arms Sales

During a January 25–27 trip to Russia, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov that Moscow risked losing up to $50 million in U.S. financial assistance if Russia delivered $200 million in guided anti-tank missiles reportedly purchased by Syria. The $50 million would not be cut from security and non-proliferation assistance, but from unobligated economic and political reform assistance.

Federal law prohibits appropriation of Foreign Assistance Act funds to countries that export "lethal military equipment" to states designated by the State Department as state-sponsors of international terrorism. Syria has been categorized as such since 1979 for providing refuge to, among other groups, the Kurdish PKK and the Iranian-backed Hizballah. (Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Sudan are also classified as state-sponsors of terrorism.)

Following Albright's visit, Syrian Minister of Defense Mustafa Tlass traveled to Russia on February 3 and reportedly discussed future buys of Russian equipment, including the S-300 air defense system, modern tanks and combat aircraft. However, a renewal of Russian arms shipments to cash-strapped Syria, which amassed at least $11 billion in arms debt to Moscow during the Cold War, has been discussed for years without any significant buys.

In another Russian arms sale criticized by Washington, Cyprus and Russia reached agreement on February 17 for the delivery of S-300 missiles purchased by Cyprus to the Greek island of Crete. While Cyprus will maintain ownership of the missiles, Greece will assume operational command.