Russia’s deputy foreign minister said Tuesday Moscow would deliver advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, as planned, in order to deter unnamed “hotheads” from turning the civil war there into an international conflict.
Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov made the comments two weeks after Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Russia to implore President Vladimir Putin to cancel the sale, and reportedly that it risk pushing the region towards war. Delivery of the weapons “is likely to draw us into a response, and could send the region deteriorating into war,” the prime minister was quoted as saying. Putin reportedly responded by warning Netanyahu that any further Israeli airstrikes in Syria could have the same result.
“We consider these supplies a stabilizing factor,” Ryabkov said, “and believe such steps will deter some hotheads from considering scenarios that would turn the conflict international with the involvement of outside forces.”
Earlier Tuesday, one top Israeli minister condemned Russia’s declared intention to deliver the advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, and another senior minister said Israel would “know what to do” if the weapons were delivered.
Using unusually harsh language, Minister of Intelligence, International Relations and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz told reporters the Russian decision to press on with the deal was an “odd” and unjustifiable move, which he said was “totally wrong” on moral and strategic grounds.
Speaking at conference organized by The Israel Project, Steinitz confirmed reports that Moscow still intended to sell the advanced S-300 missile defense system to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, despite Israel’s best efforts to dissuade Putin.
“We’re very concerned. We don’t understand — we think this behavior of supplying such arms to Damascus, to Assad, in this crucial time of terrible civil war, we think that this is totally wrong,” he said.
Steinitz rebutted the claim that the S-300 missiles are purely defensive, saying that, for Israel, they are also “offensive.”
“Why? Because with range of up to 200 or 300 kilometers, you can attack all places, also the Ben Gurion Airport.” Jerusalem also worries about the missiles falling into the hands of Hezbollah or Iran, he said.
“It’s odd, because clearly supplying such kind of advanced weapons to Assad, in the middle of this brutal civil war, while he is slaughtering his own people… on a daily basis, this is some kind of encouragement, a kind of support to this brutal regime, that is totally wrong, also from a moral point of view.” Steinitz said. “One cannot understand and one cannot justify such a behavior.”
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon also spoke against the planned transfer of the advanced weapons to Damascus. “The missiles are a threat,” he said, adding that at the moment the deal was moving at a slow pace. He said he knew for a fact that the missile systems had not yet been delivered, and “let’s hope it doesn’t happen. But if it does, we’ll know what to do.”
Ryabkov wouldn’t say whether Russia has shipped any of the long-range S-300 air defense missile systems, but added that Moscow isn’t going to abandon the deal despite strong Western and Israeli criticism.
Ryabkov’s statement came a day after the European Union’s decision to lift an arms embargo to the Syrian opposition.
Aaron Kalman contributed to this report.