Moscow’s revival of an old deal to supply S-300s to Syria sends out a strong message to the U.S. and Israel
Moscow appears to have revived a frozen contract to supply sophisticated air defence systems to Syria amid growing threats of foreign interference in the two-year-old conflict.
The Wall Street Journal broke the story on an “imminent” supply of S-300 long-range ground-to-air missiles to Syria, hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry left Moscow.
The report’s timing ensured there were no fumbles in Mr. Kerry’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin which ended with a “breakthrough” agreement on an international conference in the coming weeks to seek a political settlement in the civil war in Syria.
According to the WSJ, U.S. officials are analysing information received from Israel that Syria has been making payments to Russia on a 2010 contract to buy four batteries of advanced S-300 systems and that first shipments could take place “over the next three months.”
Evasive comments from Russian officials confirmed, rather than denied the report. Speaking after a trilateral meeting with his German and Polish counterparts in Warsaw on Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia had no plans to sign new defence contracts with Syria and was only honouring earlier deals for the supply of air defence systems.
“They are defensive weapons designed to enable Syria to defend itself against air attacks that are not a fantasy scenario as we all know,” he said.
An unnamed Russian official who was present at the closed doors trilateral meeting told the Kommersant daily that Mr. Lavrov had informed his Western colleagues that “part of the [S-300] equipment has already been shipped to Syria and the other part is indeed being readied for shipment.”
The Kremlin said the S-300 supplies were discussed during a meeting between Mr. Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who visited Russia close on the heels of Mr. Kerry.
“Everything is clear here: there is no embargo on supplies, and we are implementing contracts signed earlier, that is, we are carrying through obligations we have taken upon ourselves,” a Kremlin source told the Interfax news agency. The S-300 contract was reportedly suspended ahead of an international conference in Geneva at the end of June, 2012, which approved a road map for peace in Syria through the establishment of a transitional administration comprising members of the Opposition and the government. The plan stumbled over Western demands that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down before peace talks can begin, even though the Geneva accord did not set any such conditions.
Moscow has now shaken the dust off the S-300 deal to put additional pressure on Washington to stay true to the Geneva agreements and back away from plans to supply weapons to Syrian rebels. Russia has also served a warning to Israel to refrain from escalating the conflict by mounting air raids on Syria.
The warning has been taken seriously in the West. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to visit Russia shortly to try and stop the S-300 deal.
The S-300 missiles would make Israel think twice before venturing into Syrian airspace as they can take out warplanes and missiles flying at altitudes of 25 to 25,000 metres.
“The S-300s would make it harder for the U.S. and other countries to even consider intervening militarily or enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria,” the Associated Press said.
The system will give a long-range capability to the otherwise robust Syrian air defences.
In recent years, Russia has supplied Syria with several shorter-range anti-aircraft systems, such as the Pantsyr-S1 mobile shorter range missiles and Buk-M2 medium range systems. Russia has also upgrade Syria’s old longer range SA-3 missiles to Pechora-2M.
“According to an analysis by the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, Syrian air defences are nearly five times more sophisticated than what existed in Libya before NATO launched its air campaign there in 2011. Syrian air defences are about 10 times more sophisticated than the system the U.S. and its allies faced in Serbia,” the WSJ said.