Moscow expects Tel Aviv to refrain from attacks on Syria

In a new twist to the diplomatic game over the supply of deadly S-300 air-defence missiles to Syria, Moscow is reported to have again put the deal on hold.

An unnamed senior Russian official has been quoted by the British Sunday Times as saying the Kremlin has decided against supplying S-300 long-range missiles to Syria “for fear they could fall into the wrong hands and be used to attack civilian aircraft at Tel Aviv’s main airport”.

In return, the official added, Russia “expected Israel to refrain from further air attacks on Syria”.

The Sunday Times said cancellation of the S-300 deal had been “apparently” agreed upon at a “tense” meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and President Vladimir Putin at the Black Sea resort of Sochi earlier this month.

If the story is true, the Russian threat to supply S-300 missiles to Syria has achieved its purpose. Moscow has repeatedly said it would not allow a replay of the Libyan scenario in Syria, when the West took advantage of Russia’s fence-sitting stand to intervene, first by imposing a no-fly zone and later bombing the government forces.

Reports that Russia had revived the 2010 deal to supply the advanced air defence systems to Syria came after Israel carried out two air attacks on Syria on May 5. The raids were said to have targeted missile shipments to Hizbollah, but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Argentine newspaper Clarin that Israeli jets had “attacked a radar station that is part of our anti-aircraft defences”.

The next day, a furious Mr. Putin called the Israeli leader, who was touring Shanghai at the time, and summoned him to Sochi. (Israel claimed it was Mr. Netanyahu who had asked for a meeting.) According to Mr. Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov, the S-300 supplies were discussed “in great detail” at the meeting.

Options

Mr. Putin probably laid out for Mr. Netanyahu other Russian options for advanced weapon supplies to Syria. A week ago, The New York Times reported that Russia had sent an additional batch of Yakhont supersonic missiles to Syria for the Bastion anti-ship systems supplied two years ago.

It is the second time in two years that Russia has played the S-300 trump card. Last year, Moscow suspended the deal to smooth the way for an international conference in Geneva, which approved a roadmap for peace in Syria.

This time the halt in S-300 supplies will be seen, not only as part of a deal with Israel not to attack Syria, but also as a goodwill gesture ahead of a Geneva-II peace conference that Russia and the United States have agreed to co-sponsor next month.

Experts said the delivery of S-300 to Syria would not be a very practical proposition anyway.

“It would take at least six months to ship and install the S-300s and at least as long again to train Syrians to operate the sophisticated system,” said weapons analyst Puslan Pukhov of the CAST think-tank. “Frankly, the Syrian government has more pressing defence needs than spending $900 million on S-300 batteries.”

The Russian expert noted that the limited number of S-300 launchers contracted by Syria could still be taken out in a massive air raid, while smaller scale attacks can be repulsed by other air defence systems Russia has already supplied to Syria. Revealingly, U.S. officials said that during the latest raid the Israeli jets had most likely bombed targets in Syria without entering its air space.

Notwithstanding the Kremlin’s reported promise not to supply S-300 to Syria, there have been enough leaks in Moscow recently to keep the intrigue alive. Some Russian officials suggested the S-300 contract had been partially fulfilled, while others said the shipments had been fully completed.

“The shipments have been carried out over the past two years under tightest secrecy,” the Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote on May 16 quoting Russian military-diplomatic sources. “All four S-300 batteries sold under a 2010 contract are already on Syrian territory.”

Clearly, Moscow hopes to play the S-300 card yet again.

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