EU, Russia moving toward arming opposite sides in Syria

After the EU ended an arms embargo - which could see France and the UK arm Syrian rebels - Russia vowed to deliver the S-300 advanced missile defense system to the Assad regime.

Ugarit News via AP video/AP
This image from amateur video shows a rocket fired by Syrian rebels in Qusair, Syria, Tuesday. Europe's decision to allow member states to arm Syrian rebels and Russia's renewed pledge to send advanced missiles to the Syria regime could spur an arms race in an already brutal civil war and increasingly turn it into a East-West proxy fight.

Russia has ended weeks of ambiguity and insisted that it will honor its deal to sell "game-changing" S-300 anti-aircraft systems to the Syrian government. The advanced, long-range surface-to-air weapons could deeply complicate any attempt by the US or Israel to intervene in the bitter civil war, which is now in its third year.

The angry statement out of Moscow Tuesday appeared to be a direct response to the lapse of the European Union's arms embargo against Syria, which removes obstacles to providing lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels. Britain and France have been seriously considering arming the rebels.

Speaking to journalists in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov said Russia considers it imperative to fulfill the three-year-old, $900 million contract to supply six batteries, with 144 S-300 missiles to Syria, despite Western objections.

Russia has argued all along that its arms deliveries to Syria involve the completion of "old contracts" signed before the civil war erupted, that they are completely legal since no United Nations sanctions have been declared against the regime of Mr. Assad, and that the arms delivered are purely of a "defensive" character.

To this Mr. Rybakov added a fresh reason Tuesday, saying the S-300's will help to "stabilize" the volatile Middle East region.

"We believe (S-300 sales) are to a great extent restraining some ‘hot heads’ from considering scenarios in which the conflict may assume an international scale with the participation of outside forces," Rybakov said. "I can neither confirm, nor deny in what stage these deliveries are at… We understand all the concerns and signals sent to us from various states. We see that this issue worries many of our partners. We have no reasons to reconsider our position in this sphere," he added.

Some Russian analysts say the S-300s are probably unlikely to turn up in Syria anytime soon, despite what Ryabakov says. For one thing, they say, the missile systems are big and sophisticated, and require teams of dedicated operators to take about a year of special training in Russia before they are qualified to use them. For another, transport into the Syrian war zone would be a logistical nightmare.

"It's not only politically complicated to supply these missiles to Syria just now, it's physically very difficult," says Vadim Kozyulin, an expert with the PIR Center in Moscow, an independent think tank that specializes in security issues. "They would be very vulnerable to being destroyed while in transit, and I don't doubt there are forces already thinking of doing that. In short, I don't believe any S-300's are going to make an appearance in Syria."

The London Sunday Times quoted an unnamed Kremlin official two days ago as saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed at a meeting earlier this month in Sochi that Russia would suspend the controversial deal in exchange for a halt to Israeli airstrikes against Syria.

Israeli media subsequently quoted anonymous Israeli officials as denying that any such bargain was struck.

Russia had been largely silent on the S-300 deliveries of late and former President Dmitry Medvedev apparently made a similar deal with Netanyahu in 2009 to stop a sale of S-300 missiles to Iran. In response to Western pressure, Russia halted all major arms deliveries to Iran the next year.

But experts say that Russia is no longer in a cooperative mood, especially after the West used a 2011 UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians in Libya to provide effective air cover to Libyan rebels in their ultimately successful drive to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. Even at the time, then-Prime Minister Putin launched a rare public dissent against then-President Medvedev's decision to let the UN resolution go through.

"What we're seeing is a jockeying for position in advance of the Geneva peace talks that are supposed to take place soon over Syria," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant.

"The goal on the Western side, and on the Russian side, is to bring the forces each supports to the bargaining table with the strongest possible cards in their hands. Right now, Assad's armies are on the offensive in Syria, creating an impression that they are winning. The West is strengthening the hand of the rebels by signaling that assistance to them will be stepped up to counter Assad. Russia is responding with announcements that will give at least moral support to Assad," Mr. Strokan says.

"There is a predictable, and dangerous escalation of rhetoric going on here. Russia and the West, seeking to bolster their chosen sides, are pouring more and more gasoline onto the fire," he adds.

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