Delivery of long-range anti-aircraft missiles to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces “is a stabilizing factor,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, even as Israel denounced the decision.
“We won’t cancel this contract,” Ryabkov told reporters today in Moscow. “We understand the concerns and the signals that are being sent to us from different capitals. We see that many of our partners are worried about this, but we have no reasons to reconsider our position.”
The S-300 missiles with a range of 200-300 kilometers (186 miles) are a threat to Israel and can reach aircraft over Ben Gurion airport, Yuval Steinitz, Israeli Minister of International Relations, told reporters today. That makes them “not just defensive weapons, but offensive,” he said, calling the Russian move “terribly wrong.”
The exchanges came hours after the European Union authorized arms sales to the Syrian opposition. While Britain and France, the prime movers behind the decision, said there would be no immediate shipments to rebels, both countries said the move was intended to narrow the options for Assad, who has clung to power during two years of civil war that has cost 80,000 Syrian lives.
Ryabkov accused the EU of “pouring oil on the flames of the conflict.” The Russian minister declined to say what stage the S-300 deliveries have reached, but Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said the systems have not yet been shipped. “If, by some misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do,” he told reporters today.
The S-300, first deployed by the Soviet Union in late 1970s, would be “destabilizing” for Israel’s security, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on May 9 in Rome.
“We disagree with, and we condemn, the continued supply of Russian weapons to the regime,” U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters today in Washington. “We’ve been clear throughout and very direct with the Russian government about that.”
At the same time, Ventrell said the U.S. and Russia agree on the goal of reaching a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict.
Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, questioned the military impact of the weapons.
“This is more about politics than real arms supply,” he said by phone. “The S-300 in the Syrian case is an attract-fire-to-yourself kind of weapon. Imagine what will happen if they shoot down an Israeli plane? Assad needs more soldiers and light weapons and not anti-aircraft systems.”
The sale “is a massive game-changer,” Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and international Studies in Washington, said in an e-mail. “It virtually ensures that the U.S.-Russian talks will be meaningless, sends warning signals about similar arms transfer to Iran, can drag Israel into the Syrian fighting, and would sharply alter U.S. and allied ‘no fly’ capabilities if the Syrians can quickly absorb the system.”
The EU decision had harmed the prospects of success for an international peace conference and is a “risky step,” Ryabkov said. Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Paris on May 27 to discuss the conference. The U.S. and Russia are “deeply committed” to making the peace conference work, Kerry said after the meeting.
“The chances for success are there,” Lavrov said. “We will do everything in our power to use those chances to make them realized.”
The U.S. has also complained about Russian supplies of anti-ship missiles to Assad.
Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress last month that Russia was supplying Syria with a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile called the Yakhont, a weapon with a range of 300 kilometers that he said poses “a major threat to naval operations, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Israel has repeatedly warned Syria this year that it will act to prevent any shipments of advanced arms to Lebanon’s Hezbollah’s militia. Israeli officials have declined to say whether it was responsible for three air strikes against Syrian targets, most recently this month.
President Vladimir Putin warned against steps that might worsen the Syrian conflict at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sochi, Russia, on May 14. The S-300 issue was discussed at the meeting, according to Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
Three Lebanese soldiers were killed by unidentified gunmen in a drive-by shooting at a checkpoint near the Syrian border today, raising concerns that the civil war is spreading.
The unidentified gunmen escaped after opening fire from a car on an army roadblock in Arsal in the northeast, the official Lebanese National News Agency reported.