Russia on Tuesday confirmed that it would ship advanced anti-aircraft missiles to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, provoking Israel to threaten military action if the new weapons are delivered and drawing condemnation from the United States.
Coming just hours after the European Union agreed to let its ban on sending weapons to Syria’s anti-Assad rebels expire at the end of this week, the Russian action seemed to foretell a steady escalation of Syria’s bloody civil war, with the United States, Great Britain, France and Persian Gulf states backing the rebels while Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia offer arms and manpower to the Syrian government.
“It is very, very difficult to know where this process of escalation will stop,” strategic analyst Anthony Cordesman said in Washington, noting that the Shiite-Sunni sectarian tensions fueling the Syrian conflict extend as far east as India.
Russian officials portrayed the decision to deliver the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles as a move to stabilize the situation as they negotiate with the United States over the details of a peace conference tentatively set for next month.
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“We believe that moves like this one to a great degree restrain some hotheads from escalating the conflict to the international scale,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said in confirming the missile shipment, according to the government-allied website Russia Today.
But Israel saw the potential delivery of the air-defense system, considered one of the most sophisticated in the world, as changing the balance of power in the region and giving Syria not only a way to ward off attack, but an offensive weapon that could down planes well outside Syrian airspace.
“The missiles are a threat,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said. “Let’s hope it doesn’t happen, but if it does, we know what to do.”
The State Department criticized the Russian arms plan. “We condemn all support of arms to the regime. We’ve seen how the regime uses those arms,” spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.
At the same time, he welcomed the EU move to permit weapons shipments to the rebels as “part of the international community’s efforts to demonstrate its full support for the Syrian opposition.” Ventrell did not comment on Israel’s threat.
The looming confrontation with Israel – if Moscow does not back down – was the latest sign that the uprising against Assad, now in its 26th month, was spilling across the borders and threatening to fuel regional and sectarian conflict.
On Saturday, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, effectively declared war on Syria’s resistance and pledged a fight until victory in the ongoing battle for the town of Qusayr, where Syrian government troops and Hezbollah militants are besieging thousands of rebel fighters who’ve occupied the town for months.
A day later, Syria announced it was easing its visa policy for Iraqi “tourists,” a move analysts expect may attract more Shiite fighters to join the ranks of pro-Assad forces.
Meanwhile, Sunni Muslim extremists, many affiliated with al Qaida, have flocked to Syria to support the rebels in their battle against Assad, a member of the country’s Alawite religious minority, a sect related to Shiite Islam. The volunteers and rebel fighters in Syria have support from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, all Sunni-majority states.
Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines of the civil war, except to launch three air attacks, one in January and two in early May, ostensibly to prevent transfers of advanced missiles and other weapons from Syria to Hezbollah, which fought a bloody war with Israel in 2006. Such operations, mounted from outside Syrian airspace, would become much more difficult if the S-300s are delivered.
Israel’s intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, said the advanced system would neutralize Israel’s ability to defend itself because it was capable of striking aircraft not only above Lebanon and Syria, but also when they take off from bases in central and northern Israel.
“With a range up to 200 or 300 kilometers (120 or 180 miles) you can attack all places, also the Ben Gurion Airport,” Steinitz said.
Russia coupled its pledge to send the missiles to Syria with a condemnation of the EU decision. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Paris that the action was “illegitimate” under international law and could derail plans by the U.S. and Russia to hold diplomatic talks in Geneva next month on ending the conflict.
Neither Lavrov nor Ryabkov said when the missiles would be shipped.
EU ministers were equally ambiguous about when British and French arms would begin to flow to rebel forces.
EU foreign ministers said in a statement that member states “will not proceed at this stage” to deliver equipment to the rebels, and they said in a separate paragraph that the Foreign Affairs Council, made up of EU member countries’ 27 foreign ministers, will review its position before Aug. 1. But both Britain and France chose to read the two paragraphs as not connected.
“I know there has been some discussion of some sort of August deadline. That is not the case,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Paris said France reserved the right to send weapons immediately but had no plans to do so.
There were also questions about whether the S-300 missile system was everything Israel said it was.
In a telephone interview, Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the S-300 was a “very effective system” but its range varied according to the generation, the model and associated equipment, and that its maximum range was 150 kilometers, about 90 miles. He agreed, however, that if it had been installed, Israel’s attacks on Syria earlier this year would have required a full-scale campaign, with likely losses of aircraft and crews.
Cordesman predicted that the delivery of the missiles – which Moscow once had promised to deliver to Iran, then changed its mind – would cause a strong reaction from Sunni Arab states, dividing the Middle East into the predominantly Shiite bloc – Iran, Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah – backing Assad, and Sunni states – Jordan, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states – backing the rebels.
But he said an Israeli-Russian confrontation was not a sure thing.
“A lot depends on when and how the missiles are delivered, and whether the Russians are willing to put in advisory crews that would curtail Israeli action,” he said. The other question, he said, is “how committed the Russians are to this transfer.”
“Will they really make it and how quickly?” he asked.
Correction: This story originally misspelled the names of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, and Hezbollah movement leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Special correspondent Frenkel reported from Jerusalem and Gutman from Istanbul. Hannah Allam contributed from Washington.