MOSCOW (AFP) — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad voiced support Thursday for Russia in its conflict with Georgia and won promises from Moscow of fresh arms sales during talks with President Dmitry Medvedev.
Georgia was to blame for starting the conflict, Assad said at the start of the meeting at the Russian leader's Black Sea coastal residence in Sochi, close to the frontier with Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.
"We understand Russia's military reaction and view it as a response to military provocation by Georgia," Assad said in remarks shown on Russian television.
So far only a few countries -- notably Belarus, Cuba and Venezuela -- have openly supported Russia, which two weeks ago sent forces into its pro-Western Caucasus neighbour to repel a Georgian attack on Moscow-backed separatists in South Ossetia.
The Syrian leader said Russia had shown "courage" by agreeing to withdraw its troops after the operation -- a promise that Georgia and the West say has yet to be fulfilled.
After the talks, Russia's foreign minister announced that Moscow was ready to consider a Syrian request for "new types of weapons," but insisted they would not alter the balance of power in the Middle East.
"We are ready to deliver weapons of a defensive character that do not violate the strategic balance of power in the region," Lavrov was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
Assad said he hoped to strengthen relations with Russia, telling journalists before the meeting that Moscow could again become a bulwark against the West and help resist Israeli influence in the Middle East.
In a newspaper interview published Wednesday, Assad said the fact that Moscow's foe Georgia had received weapons and visits by military advisors from the United States was another reason for Moscow to supply weapons to Damascus.
Russian worries about offending Israel "should no longer hinder our arms cooperation," Assad said in the interview in Kommersant newspaper.
Under pressure from the United States and Israel, Russia earlier cancelled planned sales of S-300 air defence systems and short-range Iskander missiles to Syria, said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
But heightened tensions between Russia and the West could now prompt Moscow "to sell Syria what it wants," he said, noting Russia's anger at a missile defence deal between Poland and the United States.
Russian news media have reported that Moscow might also sell fighter jets to Syria or try to reopen its Soviet-era naval supply base in the Syrian port of Tartus, but both claims have been denied by Russian officials.
Moscow is frustrated it has been marginalised from Middle East peace efforts and is keen to host a Middle East peace conference, despite a lack of support from Israel and the United States, commented the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.
A recent rapprochement between Syria and France can only have increased Russia's anxiety about loss of influence in the Middle East, it argued.
"Despite the absence of real support for such a forum from the Israelis and the United States, Russia above all hopes to hold it by the end of the year," it said.
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