Russia suggests it will now sell 'offensive' weapons to Syria

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that, due to the EU's decision to permit arms sales to rebels, the Kremlin may 'revise' its vow not to sell the Syrian government 'offensive' weapons.

Mikhail Metzel/AP
Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu speaks during a security conference in Moscow last week. Mr. Shoigu warned yesterday that Russia may rethink its previous promise not to send 'offensive' arms to the Syrian government, after the EU dropped its own embargo against arming Syrian rebels.

Russia is ready to pull out the stops and possibly start supplying offensive weaponry to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, in response to the European Union's decision to drop its own embargo on providing arms to Syria's rebels, Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told journalists Wednesday.

And Mr. Assad himself made the surprise announcement, on a Lebanese TV station, that Syria has already received its first shipment of the "game-changing" S-300 air defense systems that could seriously complicate any effort by the US or Israel to intervene, Libya-style, in Syria using air power.

Experts say the claims, if true, promise a much deadlier and far more complex future for the more than two-year-old Syrian civil war, which has already killed more than 80,000 people by United Nations estimates.

But the main casualty in the short run, they say, will probably be the planned peace conference, sponsored by the US and Russia, that was intended to bring the Assad regime and its opponents to a Geneva bargaining table sometime in June.

"Prospects for the international peace conference were dim to begin with, but now they're turning distinctly dark," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Stategic Assessments in Moscow.

"The EU took the first step, by lapsing their arms embargo on Syria. They didn't even wait for the conference to take place, which suggests that they did it deliberately. That's certainly how it was taken in Moscow, where it caused great irritation. Now, after these steps, it's hard to see how anyone can go back."

Mr. Shoigu said that Moscow had until now been restraining itself from sending "offensive" weapons to Syria, such as tactical missiles, combat jets, and armor. But that choice may have to be "revised."

"Every decision has two sides. If one side lifts restrictions, the other may consider itself free from observing earlier commitments," Shoigu told a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, on Wednesday.

When the civil war broke out in Syria, Russia had more thanĀ $5 billion worth of arms contracts in the pipeline to its oldest Middle Eastern client. Russian officials have repeatedly argued that they have since moved to fulfill only those orders that were for "defensive" arms.

Syrian interest in "offensive" weapons was put on hold by the Kremlin for the duration of the conflict, according to the official RIA-Novosti news agency.

Russian experts say the suspended deals include $550 million contract to purchase 36 Yak-130 combat jet trainers, a Syrian order for up to 100 Iskander-E tactical ballistic missiles, as well as smaller items on the Syrian wishlist such as tanks and other armored vehicles.

There has even been some doubt about Moscow's determination to go ahead with sales of sophisticated "defensive" weaponry, such as the S-300 system, which is capable of shooting down fast-moving aircraft or missiles at 125 miles distance and up to 20 miles altitude.

But earlier this week, Russian officials responded to the EU move by insisting it will go ahead with S-300 deliveries, though an official spokesperson declined to say what stage the deal was at.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried, and apparently failed, to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to cancel the S-300 deal at a meeting in Sochi earlier this month.

After Moscow made clear this week that it will go ahead with the S-300 deliveries, Israel threatened to destroy the shipments before they reached the Syrian armed forces.

Assad's claim Wednesday that Syria already has some S-300's may force Israel and the West to revise their calculations, some Russian experts say.

"Moscow's message to Israel and the West with these S-300 deliveries is that any attempt to repeat the Libyan scenario, by throwing Western air power behind the rebel campaign, will not be easy," says Georgy Mirsky, a leading researcher at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

"Talk of imposing 'no-fly zones' in Syria will have to reckon with these powerful defensive S-300 complexes, which can cover a wide territory and thus alter many strategic perspectives," he adds.

Some experts say that even if S-300s are already in Syria, they are probably not yet operational.

"Components of the S-300 could already be there, but it's doubtful that they're combat ready," says Mr. Konovalov. "This is a sophisticated weapons system that is not easy to assemble, deploy, or operate. It is my understanding that the Syrians would require Russian assistance to make these missiles ready for action, and we haven't heard about any green light for that."

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