MOSCOW -- The Soviet Union and Syria signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation Wednesday and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev said the pact was to 'improve the situation in the Middle East.'
Brezhnev spoke at a state dinner in honor of visiting Syrian President Hafez Assad, who arrived Wednesday seeking support for his shaky regime and possibly military aid.
Brezhnev indicated the treaty was aimed at offsetting the U.S. presence in the Middle East, but stressed Moscow would not intervene in the Iran-Iraq war.
'The Soviet-Syrian treaty is called upon to help improve the situation in the Middle East and establish there a real and just peace,' he said. 'It is not directed against third countries. This is a treaty in the name of peace and not in the name of war.'
'We are not going to intervene in the conflict between Iran and Iraq,' Brezhnev said. 'We stand for its earliest political settlement by the efforts of the two sides.'
The Soviet president took the occasion to once again criticize alleged 'imperialist' interference in the Iraq-Iran war, which he said threatened the security of the Arab nations.
Assad, who said last month his nation would merge with Libya to form an Arab bulwark against Israel, must have been pleased at the treaty that presumably assures Soviet support in case of a conflict with the Jewish state.
Details of the treaty were not disclosed, but Arab sources said the 'treaty of support and friendship' may allow Russian troops to be stationed in Syria, a foe of Iraq which supports Iran in the current Persian Gulf war.
Brezhnev, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and Deputy Premier Nikolai Tikhonov greeted Assad at flag-bedecked Sheremetyevo airport.
Diplomatic sources said much of the Kremlin discussion would focus on the war between Iran and Iraq _ Syria's bitterest enemy _ and ways of scaling it down. The situation is a delicate one.
Arab sources explained that while Syria desperately needs Soviet military aid and support, the Kremlin wants to avoid angering Iraq.
But the Baghdad regime, also in need of Soviet help in its war against Iran, is unlikely to react too harshly to a Soviet-Syrian treaty of friendship and cooperation.
Though the pact was expected to strengthen Russia's diplomatic and military foothold in the area, the precise military importance would depend on the language of the agreement, Arab diplomats said.
The Soviets already have friendship treaties with Iraq and South Yemen, and would like to have a head-start in dealing with Syria and Libya if and when they actually merge.
Assad, beset by rivals at home and feuding with most Arab nations except Libya, needs the boost that Soviet support for his leadership would give. He also brought with him an extensive shopping list of military hardware to bepaid for with funds transferred to Damascus from Libya.
Last October, Assad's visit to Moscow brought him sophisticated weaponry including T-72 tanks and Mig-27 fighter planes.