Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on Monday said that if Russia ultimately decides to transfer its state-of-the-art S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Syria, “it will happen only in 2014.”
Speaking during a meeting of the influential Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Ya’alon said that “we are closely following the possibility that Russia may send the missiles to Syria.”
While he repeated the oft-reiterated Israeli policy that “we are not involving ourselves in the Syrian civil war,” Ya’alon emphasized that Jerusalem would nevertheless protect its own interests, and ensure that “advanced arms, missiles and chemical weapons” do not reach the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.
Ya’alon also said that President Bashar Assad only controls some 40 percent of Syria’s territory, and even in the capital of Damascus, rebels now hold at least four neighborhoods.
The chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman, opened the meeting by downplaying recent economic debates in Israel, saying they were less pressing than national security. “In recent months we have dealt with the question of the standard of living,” Liberman said. “I would like to remind you that our very right to exist in peace and security is the central issue.”
Lieberman claimed that recent events in the region posed “the biggest security threats” faced by Israel since its establishment.
Ynet quoted sources in the committee as saying that other members were livid at Ya’alon because, they said, the defense minister had not allowed enough sufficient time for discussions of the defense budget, thus turning the committee into a “rubber stamp.”
The sale of Russian S-300 missiles to the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has been a hot topic in recent weeks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in May in an attempt to dissuade him from going ahead with the deal, reportedly indicating that Israel would destroy Syrian S-300 missiles before they became fully operational.
Israeli media had earlier reported that Netanyahu warned Putin of a descent into war should Russia make the delivery. Netanyahu said that if acquired by Assad, the S-300 “is likely to draw us into a response, and could send the region deteriorating into war,” Channel 2 reported in the immediate aftermath of the meeting.
The Russian business daily Vedomosti said Friday that it was unclear whether or not the air-defense systems would be delivered this year, while the daily Kommersant reported that the S-300 missiles would only be delivered in the second quarter of 2014. According to Kommersant, the systems would need another six months of testing and training before they become operational.
The Lebanese newspaper al-Diyar reported Friday that Israel had succeeded in thwarting the missile deal by threatening to start an all-out war should Russia deliver the S-300s.
The report also claimed that Putin offered to compensate Assad with the delivery of other “effective and powerful weapons,” including modern aircraft and helicopters, to use against the Syrian rebels.
Israeli sources said last week that Syria has only paid for one-third of the S-300 contract. “It is not clear to me that the Russians are interested in transferring the weapons. Right now, it’s more of a threat,” said Ehud Ya’ari, Channel 2′s veteran, well-connected commentator.
In remarks erroneously attributed to Assad on Thursday, the Syrian president was said to have boasted in a TV interview that his country had received a first S-300 shipment from Russia, and to have asserted that “the rest of the load will arrive soon.” Israeli officials immediately said he was lying and bluffing.
What Assad actually said in the interview, on Hezbollah’s al-Manar television broadcast Thursday night, was that Russia had fulfilled some of its weapons contracts recently, but he was vague on whether this included the advanced air-defense systems. He said all contracts would be honored, and that Netanyahu’s visit to Russia two weeks ago, to plead that the S-300 deliveries not go ahead, would have no effect.
Russia’s declared intention to deliver the sophisticated systems, which can intercept fighter jets and cruise missiles, has created a tense standoff between Israel, Syria, and Russia, with Israel threatening to do “whatever it takes” to prevent the weapons being deployed, and Syria responding that it would retaliate in kind for any Israeli strike.
Aside from the unique strategic capacities that the S-300 air-defense missiles would afford Syria, putting planes taking off from central Israel and its main international airport within the missiles’ range, Jerusalem also fears that the system could fall into the hands of terror groups like Hezbollah.
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.