As I wrote earlier this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu flew to Moscow to plead with President Putin to cancel his missile sale to Syria. Well, that went down like a lead balloon with a resounding “No” from Putin. The deal will go ahead as planned although future sales might very well not go through. Small comfort.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Thursday that Russia would remain committed to previously signed arms deal “regarding agreements pertaining to aerial defense weapons.”
Despite the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew for a lightning visit to Russia with the clear intent of preventing the sale of S-300 missiles to Assad’s regime, the Russians reiterated two days later that they refused to budge from their commitments.
According to Lavrov, Russia will not sign any new deal with the Syrian government, but is nonethless obligated to previous commitments.
While Lavrov announced that Russia would in fact supply Assad with S-300 missiles, and while US President Barak Obama met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss Syria, the security assessments and deliberations regarding the Syrian conflict and Israel’s influence in its regard were still underway within the defense establishment.
CIA Director John Brennan, currently in Israel, met Thursday with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in the Kirya to discuss the security developments in the Middle East, specifically in Syria.
Besides the S-300 ground-to-air missiles, which could seriously complicate Israel’s efforts by air-strikes to prevent Syria’s missiles from reaching Hezbollah, Russia is reported also to have sold Yakhont anti-ship missiles to Syria, which would prevent Israel and other foreign countries from intervening in Syria from the sea:
Russia sold advanced Yakhont antiship cruise missiles to Syrian President Bashar Assad, outfitted with an advanced guidance system that makes them more effective than the older version of the missile Russia sold to Syria, The New York Times cited two American officials as saying on Thursday.
These missiles will allow Syria to thwart any attempt by international forces to reinforce Syrian rebels by imposing a naval embargo or no fly zone, Nick Brown the editor in chief of IHS Jane’s International Defense Review told The New York Times.
“It enables the regime to deter foreign forces looking to supply the opposition from the sea, or from undertaking a more active role if a no-fly zone or shipping embargo were to be declared at some point,” Brown said, “It’s a real ship killer,” he added.
According to the Times report, Syria ordered the coastal defense version of the Yakhont system from Russia in 2007 and received the first units in early 2011.
Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior American intelligence official, told the Times that by strengthening Syria’s arsenal Russia was signalling its “commitment to the Syrian government.”
Russia has further intervened on behalf of Assad by sending at least 12 warships to Syria:
In a move considered aggressive by US and European officials, Russia has sent at least 12 warships to patrol waters near its naval base in Tartous, Syria.
The deployment appears to be a warning to Israeli and Western officials against military intervention in Syria’s bloody civil war, which has now claimed the lives of over 80,000 people.
“It’s a show of force. It’s muscle flexing,” a top US official told the Journal.
Russian news sources reported earlier Thursday that five warships had entered the Mediterranean Sea to bolster the country’s new regional task force. The vessels were scheduled to dock in Limassol, Cyprus.
In March, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the naval task force was needed in order to protect Russian interests in the region.
The Russians themselves admit that the weapons sales are a message to America in a statement to Walla, an Israeli website:
Russia’s decision to send S-300 missile systems to Syria is, in part, a message to the United States, according to the head of the Russian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Alexei Pushkov.
Russia opposes outside interference in Syria’s ongoing civil war, he explained, according to Walla. “We’re opposed to no-fly zones, because they are the first step toward aerial attack,” he said.
“Syria asked Russia to help it defend itself from aerial assault,” he added.
This Russian hyperactivity on behalf of Syria is as much a by-product of America’s self-induced weakness under the Obama administration as it is an actual taking of sides in the Syrian civil war.
The question remains whether Israel will dare to attack Russian interests in order to protect its own. Israel Hayom reports that indeed we should expect Israeli strikes on Russia’s arm shipments to Syria:
U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that another round of Israeli airstrikes could target a new Russian transfer of advanced anti-ship missiles in the near future. Israeli and Western intelligence services believe the Yakhont missiles, which have been sold by Russia to Syria in recent years, could be transferred to Hezbollah within days, the newspaper reported on its website Friday.
At the same time, The New York Times reported Friday that the Yakhont missiles have already been delivered to Syria’s armed forces. Israel has repeatedly reinforced, with words and actions, its stated red line: that it will not allow the transfer of “game-changing” weaponry to Islamic terror groups such as Hezbollah. Israel has also relayed messages that it is not seeking a confrontation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, but will act against transfers of weaponry through his territory.
The unofficial response from Israeli government officials to Lavrov’s statements amounted to saying that actions will be the deciding factor and not declarations. A senior government official noted that the deal between Russia and Syria had been signed in 2010 and was delayed multiple times, despite numerous Russian statements that it would be carried out.
“We relayed the message [to Russia]. Bringing weapons to Syria destabilizes the area and carries the risk of seeing them transferred to Hezbollah,” a government official said.
In a sign of the growing tension in the region, CIA Director John Brennan arrived in Israel Thursday and met with the top officials in Israel’s defense establishment, with a central focus on the developments in Syria. It was Brennan’s first trip to Israel since assuming his position two months ago. The CIA chief went straight into a meeting in Tel Aviv with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a senior Israeli official told AFP.
Channel 10 TV said that Ya’alon reaffirmed during the talks that Israel “will not permit the transfer of weapons” from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. According to local press reports, Brennan’s visit is aimed at coordinating U.S. and Israeli positions over the escalating crisis in Syria, specifically as international diplomatic momentum between the U.S. and Russia gathers for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
According to the reports, the U.S. is concerned that Israel will act independently to strike any advanced arms shipments in Syria it believes may be headed to Hezbollah, potentially scuttling the international diplomatic maneuvering.
If the United States had shown more a bit more nerve and more willingness to intervene, we might not have been in this situation today and the Russians might have had second thoughts about their weapons sales. As things stand, these sales have made Israeli intervention only more likely, not less.
According to this Times of Israel report, Israel has threatened it will bring down Assad if he retaliates to future airstrikes:
Israel has warned Damascus that if President Assad chooses to hit back at Israel for any further Israeli military strikes, Israel will bring down his regime.
An Israeli official confirmed Wednesday night that a dramatic and unprecedented message to this effect had been conveyed to Damascus, Channel 2 news reported.
The report said that Israel’s position to this effect also came up during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency meeting in Russia on Tuesday with President Vladimir Putin, during which Netanyahu also told Putin of Israel’s profound opposition to Russia’s sale of sophisticated S-300 missile defense batteries to Assad.
The warning came hours after mortar shells hit the Mount Hermon area for the first time in the two-year Syrian civil war, and as Arabic newspapers reported talk of Hezbollah opening “a new front” against Israel on the Golan Heights.
Syria vowed last week to respond “immediately and harshly” to any further Israeli airstrikes, after Israel carried out two early morning attacks earlier this month on weapons consignments being stored in and around Damascus en route from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The shipments contained highly sophisticated Fateh-110 missiles.
Confirmation of Israel’s warning to Assad came soon after the New York Times quoted an Israeli official issuing the same threat. The New York Times said Israel was “considering further military strikes on Syria to stop the transfer of advanced weapons to Islamic militants,” and that an unnamed Israeli official had contacted the paper to warn: “Israel is determined to continue to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. The transfer of such weapons to Hezbollah will destabilize and endanger the entire region. If Syrian President Assad reacts by attacking Israel, or tries to strike Israel through his terrorist proxies, he will risk forfeiting his regime, for Israel will retaliate.”
The New York Times report speculated that Israel “could be trying to restrain Syria’s behavior without undertaking further military action, or alerting the international community to another strike. That would ratchet up the tension in an already fraught situation in Syria, where a civil war has been raging for more than two years.”
An interesting analysis by Boaz Bismuth in Israel Hayom explains how Assad and Putin can feel so confident because of America’s weakness and the Administration’s concentration on domestic affairs at the expense of foreign affairs. Read it all for a good insight into the diplomatic background to the Syrian crisis.