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Russia has agreed to write off a huge chunk of Soviet-era debt held by Syria, a country at the centre of Moscow’s attempts to revive its influence in the Middle East. The announcement coincided with the recent visit of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Russia, which has long defended the Arab state against US and Israeli charges of ties to terrorism.

In a sign that Moscow was ready to take its relations with Syria to a new level, finance minister Alexei Kudrin said Russia had agreed to write off 73%   US$9.8bn  of Syria’s net debts to Moscow.

It is unclear what Moscow, whose influence has waned in the Middle East after the collapse of the Soviet Union, will get in return, but Assad has called on Russia to boost its voice in global politics.

“I would like to support Russia’s political course and at the same time express a protest against the political course of the United States,” Assad told Moscow students.
“Russia’s role is huge and Russia is well respected by third world countries … These countries are really hoping that Russia will try to revive its lost positions in the world.”

Moscow cultivated ties with Syria in cold war times to counterbalance the influence of US-backed Israel and supplied weaponry to the Arab state. But the Soviet collapse left Russia’s key Soviet-era arms client out in the cold.
Russia’s burgeoning relations with Syria have rung alarm bells in the US and Israel. Days before Assad’s visit, Israeli media reported Syria wanted to buy powerful missile systems from Russia, a move Israel says would strengthen militant groups in the region.

While denying any such plans, Assad says the very fact that Israel opposed expansion of Damascus’ military might meant that it wanted to invade Syria. “Israel’s position is illogical,” he said. Moscow has denied it wanted to sell arms to Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking before talks with Assad, said: “Syria is a country with which the Soviet Union and today’s Russia have always had particularly warm relations.
“We can base our relations today on a tradition of friendship and cooperation that is decades old.”

Washington sees Syria as a sponsor of terrorism and has demanded that Damascus stop insurgents and money entering Iraq ahead of Sunday’s elections. Syria denies the accusations.
Moscow, already at odds with Washington over nuclear ties with Iran, says the US stance on Syria undermines the Middle East peace process.