Moscow ignores Tel Aviv redline on weapons transfer

Reports about Russia’s decision to supply game-changing weaponry, including S-300 missiles, if confirmed, would mark Moscow’s boldest assertion so far to rescue Syria from becoming yet another victim of a regime-change enterprise in the region.

Bloomberg has quoted a Kremlin official as saying Russia is completing contracts to supply S-300 air-defence missile batteries to Syria. These weapons, which can take on several aerial targets at long ranges can successfully deter air strikes, recently undertaken by Israel in Syria, apparently to destroy the Iran-built Fateh-110 rockets bound for the Lebanese Hizbollah. Starry-eyed aspirations of Syria’s foes, including the ex-European colonial powers, to enforce a Libya-style no-fly zone over the Syrian air space would also go up in smoke, once the successful transfer of these weapons is secured.

Unsurprisingly, reports about the Syria-bound shipments of the S-300 missiles has caused deep consternation in the U.S. The transfer of these weapons is “at the very least an unfortunate decision that will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering,” said General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Pentagon news conference on Friday. “It’s ill-timed and very unfortunate.”

Apart from the S-300 systems, the Syrians seem set to receive the Russian Yakhont anti-ship missiles. These weapons are apparently a formidable variant of the Brahmos anti-ship cruise missiles that have been jointly developed by Russia and India. The acquisition of these missiles will significantly boost Syria’s capability to protect its Mediterranean coastline. In the immediate context of the ongoing conflict, Syrian opposition will find it hard to smuggle in weapons sourced from their external partners from the sea.

The steeling of Syria’s firepower is only one part of the story of Russia’s accelerated entrenchment in West Asia following the two-year old crisis. The Russian Defence Ministry dropped a bombshell in April when it announced that a permanent Russian naval task force would be established in the Mediterranean Sea. Russian Navy Commander Admiral Viktor Chirkov announced earlier this month that the Mediterranean task force will have five or six warships and support vessels, which would be rotated and replaced by warships from other fleets. The admiral also hinted that nuclear submarines known for their underwater endurance could be deployed to strengthen the Mediterranean force. The Admiral said the headquarters of the flotilla would be decided by summer, but it would not be surprising if the Syrian port of Tartus is chosen as the nerve centre of the newly formed task force.

The transfer of the weaponry has implanted in the region a new dynamic, with unpredictable consequences. A section of the punditry is concluding, perhaps hastily, that like never before, West Asia is sliding down the path of a dangerous explosion, with horrific human consequences, following the introduction of Russia’s super-weapons into the volatile Syrian theatre. It is argued that Russia has now crossed the red-line drawn by Israel of denying Syrians, S-300s and the Yakhont anti-ship missiles.

Consequently, the Israelis would now be forced to destroy the S-300 missiles, before these batteries become fully operational. Such attacks would amount to a declaration of war, which could firmly draw the Hizbollah and Iran into combat in step with Syria, vastly expanding the footprint of war.

However, this scenario of a cascading regional war is hardly a fait accompli. By attacking the Russian missiles, in a context where Moscow is staking its prestige and credibility in the region, Israel would be risking drawing Russia — which has not lost all its superpower capabilities — into the theatre of combat. Despite its ample military prowess and deep embedment in the western military alliance system, Israel would find it extremely painful to act in a manner that would cement a full-fledged alliance of Russia with the “axis of resistance” countries that include Iran, Syria and Hizbollah.

The risks of dangerous escalation notwithstanding, it is more likely that by markedly boosting Syria’s defences, Russia has brought about greater equilibrium in the regional balance of power. In turn, its move could well infuse new life in finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis, based on negotiations where neither side is deprived of trump cards.

Keywords: Syria crisis

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