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Syria eyes an edge amid Russia-U.S. rift

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Although Syria's isolation has crumbled in recent years, Damascus remains deeply at odds with Washington over a host of issues: support for Islamist militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, the war in Iraq, and its relationship with Iran.

Syria nonetheless has made a diplomatic comeback in recent months through a carefully calculated balance of patience, stubbornness, and flexibility. Forced into a troop withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Syria has seen its Lebanese allies make gains despite the fact that a US-backed political bloc holds a majority in parliament.

Also, Syria has managed to balance its key strategic relationship with Iran against a resumption of indirect peace talks with Israel.

"Syria is keeping its options open," says Andrew Tabler, a Damascus-based analyst on Syria.

Syria may have sniffed another opportunity to leverage regional advantage when fighting erupted between Russia and Georgia earlier this month.

While Russia has signaled a new determination to impose its will on its immediate neighbors, it is too soon to tell whether Moscow intends to increase its influence in the Middle East as well.

The Soviet Union was once Syria's main weapons supplier, leaving Damascus saddled with a $13.4 billion arms-sales debt at the end of the cold war in 1990. In 2005, Russia wrote off almost three quarters of the debt, launching a new era of improved cooperation and fresh arms deals.

Damascus has its eyes on Russia's advanced antiaircraft and antitank missile systems that in Syria's hands could pose a threat to Israel's aerial and armored dominance. According to a Russian diplomat quoted last week by Russia's Interfax news agency, Syria is interested in acquiring the BUK M1 and Pantsyr S1 antiaircraft missile systems.

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