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.
policy chief Catherine Ashton clarified that member states would not proceed at
this time to deliver weapons to Syria’s opposition forces.
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
His remarks toughened Russia’s defiance of the United States, France
and Israel over the delivery of the precision S-300 missile systems.
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.
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
“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.”
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
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
“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
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.
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
“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.
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