Steinitz: Syria can use S-300 to hit civilian planes

Weapons sale encourages "support to brutal regime," Seinitz says; Ya'alon says Russian delivery poses threat to Israel.

 S-300 mobile missile complex  370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
S-300 mobile missile complex 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Syrian civil war took a dangerous turn for Israel on Tuesday with Russia’s decision to deliver long-range S- 300 missiles capable of hitting aircraft to President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Moscow is standing firm on the sale, despite a trip to Russia by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu this month in which he pleaded with President Vladimir Putin to halt the delivery, and a veiled warning of a military response by Israel.
“Clearly this move is a threat to us,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said as he stood outside the IDF Home Front Command’s base in Ramle. “At this point I cannot say that there is a stepup in the shipment of the S- 300. The deliveries have not taken place, I can attest to this, and I hope they do not. But if, by some misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do.”
Russian’s announcement comes just one day after the European Union lifted its arms embargo to allow member states to send weapons to the rebel forces fighting Assad.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton clarified that member states would not proceed at this time to deliver weapons to Syria’s opposition forces.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov accused the EU of “throwing fuel on the fire” by letting its arms embargo on Syria expire, saying it would complicate efforts to arrange an international peace conference in Geneva to end the Syrian civil war.
His remarks toughened Russia’s defiance of the United States, France and Israel over the delivery of the precision S-300 missile systems.
“We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads... from exploring scenarios in which this conflict could be given an international character with participation of outside forces, to whom this idea is not foreign,” he told a news conference.
Western experts say the air defense system could significantly boost Syria’s ability to stave off outside intervention in the more than two-year civil war that has killed over 80,000 people.
The S-300s can intercept manned aircraft and guided missiles and their delivery would improve the Assad government’s chance of holding out in Damascus. Western nations say the Russian arms deliveries could increase tension and encourage Assad.
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud Beytenu) said of Moscow’s decision: “One cannot understand or justify such behavior. It is totally wrong.”
Speaking at a one-day conference in Jerusalem called “Israel: A new reality?” hosted by The Israel Project, Steinitz explained to the audience of diplomats and journalists that the S-300 could be used as both a defensive and offensive weapon.
“Supplying such weapons to Assad in the middle of a civil war, while he is slaughtering his own people” could be seen as a sign of encouragement and support, Steinitz said.
Russia has sent anti-missile defense systems to Syria before, but says it has not sent offensive weapons or arms that can be used against the antigovernment forces. A source close to Russia’s state arms exporter said a contract to supply Syria with fighter jets had been suspended.
Ryabkov was unable to confirm whether the S-300s had already been delivered but said “we will not disavow them.”
Russia has been Assad’s most powerful ally during the conflict, opposing sanctions and blocking, along with China, three Western-backed UN Security Council resolutions meant to pressure the government to stop fighting. Moscow opposes military intervention or arming Syrian rebels and defends its right to deliver arms to Assad’s government.
A senior French official said the S-300 was brought up at talks between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Monday.
“Obviously it poses a huge problem for us, because if they deliver these weapons – they are ground-to-air missiles – and if we were to set up air corridors, then you can see the contradiction between the two,” the official said.
Britain and France, which opposed renewing the arms embargo, have made clear they reserve the right to send arms immediately, despite an agreement by European countries to put off potential deliveries until August 1, but have made no decisions yet.
Israel has been hesitant to offer an opinion on arming rebel groups. While it opposes Assad, a longtime enemy of Israel, it is also concerned since the rebel forces include radical elements connected to Islamic Jihad who want to destroy Israel.
Steinitz echoed words Netanyahu has said in the past, saying the question is what weapons and which groups.
In spite of the shells from neighboring Syria that have landed in Israel, Jerusalem hopes that it does not have to get involved in the civil war.
“Israel is not involved and we don’t want to get involved by any means in the civil war in Syria,” Steinitz said. But he warned that if attacked, Israel would react forcibly.