WASHINGTON - The top US military officer on Friday condemned Russia's shipment of advanced anti-ship missiles to Syria, saying it could embolden President Bashar Assad's forces to keep fighting a bloody civil war.
"It's at the very least an unfortunate decision that will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering," General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon when asked about the weapons shipment.
"So it's ill-timed and very unfortunate," he said.
There was no direct comment on the shipment from Moscow, although Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary, reiterated Russia's long-held position that it will remain "true to its contractual obligations under previously signed contracts."
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Yakhont missiles were delivered recently, although the precise timing was unclear. They fly at just over 2.5 times the speed of sound, have a range of about 300 kilometers (185 miles) and pack a huge punch from their 200 kg (440 pound) warhead, according to Nick Brown, editor of IHS Jane's International Defense Review.
"They are hard to detect and even harder to shoot down or decoy away, so they're a powerful tool for keeping warships a long way off the Syrian shore," Brown said.
The disclosure comes just over a week after United States and Russia agreed to convene a conference to try to stop the war. But the initiative faces growing obstacles, including French opposition to inviting Iran.
The Russian arms transfer could intensify a push by some lawmakers in Congress for the United States to deepen its role in Syria, particularly after President Barack Obama's government acknowledged preliminary intelligence that Assad's forces likely used chemical weapons.
"We can watch from the sidelines as the scales are tipped in Assad's favor, or protect US national interests by supporting the armed opposition striving to build a new Syrian future," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez.
But many US officials fear weapons could fall into the wrong hands. Reuters on Friday reported that al Qaida's Iraq-based wing is eclipsing in Syria the Islamist Nusra Front, which has been fighting to oust Assad. Al Qaida in Iraq includes thousands of foreign fighters whose ultimate goal is not toppling Assad but anti-Western jihad.
Obama said Thursday he would consider both diplomatic and military options to pressure Assad, but insisted that US action alone would not be enough to resolve the Syrian crisis.
The two-year-old civil war in Syria between Assad's forces and rebel fighters has killed an estimated 80,000 people and forced more than 1.5 million to flee the fighting.
It has also drawn in neighbors. Israel attacked Iranian-supplied missiles stored near the Syrian capital earlier this month as the weapons awaited transport to Assad's Lebanese guerrilla ally Hezbollah.
Israel has also been alarmed by the prospect of Russia supplying S-300 advanced air defense missile systems to Syria.
Asked about the S-300, Dempsey said: "It pushes the standoff distance a little more, increases risk, but not impossible to overcome."
"What I'm really worried about is that Assad will decide that, since he's got these systems, he's somehow safer and/or more prone to a miscalculation," Dempsey said, referring broadly to Syrian capabilities.
A spokesman for Russia's state arms-exporting monopoly, Rosoboronexport, would not comment when asked about the shipment of a new batch of Yakhont missiles to Syria.
Russia previously delivered Yakhont missiles in 2011 in a deal estimated at $300 million.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cautioned that the escalation of the Syrian conflict posed risks to Russian interests as well.
"What we don't want to see happen, the Russians don't want to see happen, is for Syria to erupt to the point where we may well find a regional war in the Middle East," Hagel said at the news conference with Dempsey.
"So we continue to work with the Russians on their interests and everything we can do to convince the powers that are involved in the region to be careful with escalation of military options and equipment. We'll continue to work through that."