'Russia won't place missiles in Syria'

Acting ambassador tells 'Post' Russia has no intention of upsetting balance in Middle East.

assad medvedev 224.88 ap (photo credit: )
assad medvedev 224.88 ap
(photo credit: )
Russia has no intention of placing the advanced Iskander missile system in Syria, acting Ambassador Anatoly Yurkov told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. He made his comments in the wake of an offer by Syrian President Bashar Assad to allow Russia to deploy the short-range solid fuel missiles in his country. The export model of the Iskander is difficult to shoot down and has a 280-km. range. If stationed in Syria, the missiles could deliver conventional explosives to almost anywhere in Israel. "Why would we do that?" Yurkov asked of such a deployment, adding that Russia had no interest in upsetting the strategic balance in the region. Assad arrived in Russia on Thursday for talks with President Dmitry Medvedev in which he hopes to buy an array of military equipment including long-range anti-aircraft missiles and MiG-31 fighter jets. The Assad-Medvedev talks come in an atmosphere of heightened tensions with the West in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Georgia earlier this month. The agreement the US signed with Poland on Wednesday to place a defensive anti-missile system on Polish soil only served to further aggravate the situation, with Russia formally announcing Thursday that it planned to halt all military cooperation with NATO. Citing Israel's history of arms sales to Georgia, Assad told reporters on Wednesday he believed that, as a consequence, Russia might be more amenable to his requests for military hardware. Speaking to the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem on Thursday, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni took issue with Assad's attempt to make it sound as if Russia would want to settle accounts with Israel as "not serious," and in fact "dangerous, in a way." While Russia has earned the condemnation of the West for its actions in Georgia, Assad arrived smiling. He told Medvedev that Syria supported Russia's operations there, and Medvedev thanked him. Following Assad's meeting with Medvedev, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country would consider Syria's request for arms. Past deals have included the sale of Russia's advanced Strelets surface to air system. But according to the ITAR-Tass news agency, Lavrov said that any weapons sold to Syria would be defensive and would "not in any way interfere with the strategic balance in the region." Livni told reporters in Israel that she believed Russia's approach would be measured. "I think that the connection between [Israel] sending some weapon to Georgia and [saying] that means [Russia] will bring missiles to Syria is wrong. I mean Russia has its own interests in the region. No one wants to destabilize the region," she said. Livni added her belief that no pragmatic leader, including Medvedev, would want to place such long-range missiles in Syria. The issues were larger than Israel and involved Syria's military relationship with other countries, such as Lebanon and Iran, she said. In speaking of past arms sales to Georgia, she said that each transaction had been carefully reviewed and that Israel's relationship with Russia had been taken into consideration. Speaking to Channel 2 on Thursday, Ambassador Yurkov said Russia was satisfied with the fact that Israel had halted such sales to Georgia. As a sign that relations between Russia and Israel were continuing as normal, Medvedev called Olmert on Wednesday night. But one diplomatic source said he was concerned by Lavrov's statements on Thursday that more arm sales to Damascus would be considered. One could consider it a positive that Russia had stated that it was sticking to the defensive-armaments-only line, the source said. On the other hand, the word "defensive" is vague and it was possible to strengthen Syria by simply upgrading the types of defensive weapons that were offered. This, the source said, would not be good for Israel. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister's Office confirmed on Thursday that the indirect negotiations brokered by Turkey for a peace deal between Israel and Syria were ongoing. A Turkish source said he too believed that the recent tense remarks by Syria had not impacted the process. Livni said that she did not believe the new tensions between Russia and the West would impact the drive to stop Iran's nuclear program. Although Russia had been a reluctant partner in that effort, Livni said she believed "there is an understanding between international leaders [including the Russians] that the world cannot afford an Iran with nuclear weapons." The problem that arises is how to prevent Iran from acquiring those weapons, she said. "It is my belief that Russia has the best understanding of the process," she said. AP contributed to this report.