Israel warns Russia against arming Syrian government
Israel's defence minister signals that its military is prepared to strike shipments of advanced Russian weapons to Syria
By: Julian Borger The Guardian
Russia said on Tuesday that it would supply one of its most advanced anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian government hours after the EU ended its arms embargo on the country's rebels, raising the prospect of a rapidly escalating proxy war in the region if peace talks fail in Geneva next month.
Israel quickly issued a thinly veiled warning that it would bomb the Russian S-300s if they were deployed in Syria as such a move would bring the advanced guided missiles within range of civilian and military planes in Israeli air space.
"The shipments haven't set out yet and I hope they won't," Moshe Ya'alon, the Israeli defence minister, said. "If they do arrive in Syria, God forbid, we'll know what to do."
Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, argued that the delivery of the S-300 system had been previously agreed with the Syrian government in Damascus and would be a "stabilising factor" that could dissuade "some hotheads" from entering the conflict. That appeared to be a reference to the UK and France, who pushed through the lifting of the EU embargo on Monday night and are the only European countries currently considering arming the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The move by Moscow was criticised by the White House, which said arming the Syrian government did "not bring the country closer to the desired political transition" that it deserved.
Washington welcomed the EU move to suspend its arm embargo. State department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said it was helpful because it sent a "message to the Assad regime". But the developments put Washington in the difficult spot of condemning Russian arms sales while appearing to condone potential EU arms sales.
Ventrell insisted the US was "co-ordinating" with its allies but said it had still not made a decision about whether it should supply weapons to the rebels. US officials declined to comment on whether or not there was any irritation with Europe and insisted they were still hopeful that the Geneva peace talks, tentatively scheduled for mid-June, could go ahead.
Britain and France said that, despite Monday night's divisive vote in Brussels, they had not yet taken the decision to send arms and would not do so at least until after the Geneva talks.
"We have said, we have made our own commitments, that at this stage, as we work for the Geneva conference, we are not taking any decision to send any arms to anyone," said William Hague, the foreign secretary.
British officials said the lifting of the embargo had a political purpose, raising the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters, Russia and Iran, to make concessions in Geneva, most importantly to agree not to play a role in a transitional Syrian government. If that fails, the officials said western arms supplies would strengthen moderate elements in the armed opposition currently outgunned and out-financed by jihadist groups.
"Whoever controls logistics will command loyalty," a senior British official said. "It's about dragging some of these fighters back from the extremists."
The official stressed that any future British arms supplies would not include portable anti-aircraft missiles. "There is not going to be an airliner brought down by some weapon we provide," he said.
The leading UK role in lifting the arms embargo was fiercely criticised by Labour at Westminster.
Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, said: "Russia's announcement that it will send S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to President Assad further underlines the real risks of this conflict escalating into a regional war by proxy, leading to further suffering for the Syrian people."
Downing Street refused to say whether MPs would be given a chance to vote on any decision to send arms to the rebels. "What we are doing is sending a signal, loud and clear, to the regime," said a spokesman.
Although Moscow's declaration was a riposte to the decision in Brussels, analysts pointed out that it would take more than a year for S-300 missiles to become operational, if they were deployed at all.
"Does Russia have S-300 batteries ready to go?" said Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. "I'm not sure that it does. Is it going to send engineers to integrate it with existing [air defence] architecture? Will they send trainers for the one to two years it takes to train people to use it? This seems more like an exercise in political signalling to me, saying: 'Hands off Syria.'"
Daniel Levy, at the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued that, like the Russian announcement, there could be more posturing than substance in the lifting of the EU arms embargo as any eventual weapons deliveries would be limited by legal and political constraints.
"Given that the impact of such arming would anyway be relatively minor, the EU foreign ministers' meeting was akin to a very public discussion of how best to bluff a weak hand in a poker match – not a good idea," Levy said.
In Ankara, a senior Turkish official portrayed the Geneva talks as a make-or-break moment to take practical steps towards the creation of transitional government without Assad and his closest entourage, unlike the first round of Geneva talks last year.
"If Geneva II fails, the opposition, the Free Syrian Army, will get all they need, including sophisticated arms," the official said. "This will be the last diplomatic channel. There won't be another chance for the regime to negotiate its role in a transitional government."
He said the key factor would be the US position on backing the rebels if Geneva failed to bring progress.
At the moment, Washington is only providing non-lethal assistance to the FSA, but the Turkish official said President Barack Obama showed readiness to change policy at his meeting earlier this month with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"The US is stepping up its efforts and its close contacts it keeps with [FSA commander] Salim Idriss tells you something about American intentions," he said.
The Syrian opposition is hopeful that the visit by Senator John McCain to rebel-held areas in northern Syria over the weekend would increase the political pressure on the Obama administration to send arms.
However, the US administration played down the significance of the McCain visit. A spokesman said the White House was aware McCain was planning the trip to see rebel leaders and looked forward to "speaking to him upon his return".
The opposition Syrian National Coalition is holding fractious internal debates in Istanbul over its leadership and whether or not it should attend the Geneva talks. However, Turkish officials say they are confident that there will be opposition representation.
It is unclear, however, whether Iran will attend in the face of determined Saudi opposition to their participation. Riyadh has threatened to boycott the talks if Iran attends, officials in Ankara said. Russia and some Syrian opposition groups argue that Tehran has to be included in view of its heavy involvement on the conflict. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are training pro-government militias to fight alongside the Syrian regular army.
"If Iran doesn't come to Geneva, then that will be confirmation that it is a purely cosmetic exercise," a senior Syrian opposition official said.