Russia reaffirmed on Tuesday it will send advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAM) to the Syrian government in response to the EU’s decision to lift an arms embargo against Syrian rebels. A previous report had suggested Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin not to send the S-300 missiles during a meeting in Sochi earlier this month.
Moscow has been selling weapons to the Syrian government for decades. Israeli sources say the Syrians continue to make payments in accordance with a 2010 agreement with Russia, buying four S-300 batteries worth around $900 million. The weapons package could include 144 operational missiles carrying a range of over 125 miles, long enough to hit civilian aircraft at Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv.
A Russian designed S-300 surface-to-air missile launcher on a mobile launching platform. (Photo: Vietbao.vn)
Russian officials contend the arms transfer would help prevent outside forces from becoming involved in Syria’s civil war. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, “We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads … from exploring scenarios.” Such sharp words continue to show the polarization between different international powers, even as high level delegations of Russian and U.S. officials try to renew a diplomatic conference to end the two year conflict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced concern that such a sale could further destabilize the region around Israel.
While the S-300 delivery has been delayed for months and further training for Syrian troops could take more time, its presence could escalate the conflict. Moscow says it is required to fulfill the contract and its military personnel will service the SAM systems on the ground in Syria, which in turn means that Russian citizens could be injured or killed if the conflict escalates. Over the past few weeks, Israel warned such an advanced system could challenge the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) air superiority and thus the country’s ability to execute airstrikes against targets inside Syria.
The export of advanced Russian weaponry and the failure to find consensus on a renewal on the expiring EU arms embargo will surely bring new dimensions to the Syrian conflict, but these changes may take some time to be seen.