The Russian deployment of advanced anti-aircraft missiles in Syria is a “needless escalation,” the general overseeing America’s military involvement in the Middle East said Thursday.
General Joseph Votel, who heads the US Central Command, blasted Russia over its unnecessary deployment of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system, which Moscow installed after the accidental downing of a Russian military plane by Syrian forces.
The deployment of the missiles “appears to be an effort to cover for Iranian and Syrian regime nefarious activities in Syria. So, again, I think this is a needless, needless escalation,” he told Pentagon reporters.
Votel also said that Washington was aware of the capabilities of the S-300 missiles, and their deployment to Syria would not affect US military activities.
“Our forces here have been operating under a latent anti-air threat for some time and we will continue to do so,” he said.
Russia announced last week that it would boost security measures in Syria following the downing of a Russian military plane by an S-200 missile, in a mistake that Moscow blamed on nearby Israeli planes.
Both Israel and the United States have protested the decision to supply Syria with the S-300, which could complicate ongoing Israeli efforts to prevent Iran deepening its military presence in Syria and to thwart the transfer of weapons in Syria to Hezbollah.
The American general also said Thursday that Iran was using Syria as cover to target other countries.
“We believe they are moving lethal capabilities into Syria that threaten neighbors in the region,” he said.
He added, however, that the United States is not seeking conflict with Iran, even as some Trump administration officials have stepped up rhetoric against Tehran.
“I don’t think we’re seeking to go to war with Iran, and I don’t think that’s what we’re focused on,” he said.
The Trump administration, which is close to Iran’s rivals Saudi Arabia and Israel, this year withdrew from a key international deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program and has vowed to challenge Tehran’s influence in Syria, as well as Yemen and Iraq.
Trump has been clear the Iranian regime needs to “cease its destabilizing behavior and policy that spreads violence and human misery throughout the Middle East,” Votel said.
“The principle way that we are approaching that right now is through diplomatic and economic pressure. And I support that, I don’t see that necessarily as being on the road to war with Iran.”
Iran on Monday said it had launched ballistic missiles into Syria to kill jihadists in retaliation for a deadly attack on an Iranian military parade.
Such activities “give us a little bit of pause,” Votel said, noting that Iran had not warned the US-led coalition in Syria about the strike, potentially putting coalition forces at risk.
I “characterize what they’re doing as reckless, unsafe and escalatory,” he said.
His comments came the day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US was terminating a 1955 friendship treaty with Iran reached under its pro-Western shah.
And US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, a longtime hawk on Iran, last week said the US would maintain a presence in Syria even after the Islamic State group has been defeated.
“We’re not going to leave [Syria] as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders,” Bolton said.
“That includes Iranian proxies and militias,” he added, going on to warn of Tehran of “hell to pay” if it threatens the US or its allies.
James Jeffrey, the US special representative on Syria, later said a continued US presence in the war-torn country did not necessarily mean American boots on the ground.
Votel has not received any “direct military tasks” in terms of the Trump administration’s pressure campaign, but he said the Pentagon remains “prepared to respond rapidly and massively if the situation requires.”
The S-300 system, considered one of the most advanced in the world, has a radius of some 200 kilometers, meaning a battery placed near Damascus would cover much of Israel.
Russia, which is a main backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has maintained a deconfliction hotline with Israel, allowing the Jewish state to carry out the attacks as long as it was informed beforehand.
The future of that program has been uncertain since the September 17 plane incident, which occurred as four Israeli fighter jets conducted an airstrike on the weapons warehouse near the coastal city of Latakia, which the IDF said was intended to provide weapons to the Hezbollah terror group and other Iranian proxies.
Moscow has accused Israel of using its IL-20 spy plane as a shield after the attack, rejecting Israel’s claims that poorly trained Syrian air defense operators are to blame for the deaths of 15 Russian servicemen aboard the downed aircraft.
Israel denies this charge, and insists it also notified the Russians 12 minutes before the attack — while Moscow has said it was given only a minute’s notice.
Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes against Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria over the last several years, with fighter jets going nearly unchallenged by the country’s air defenses — though an F-16 was downed by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile in February in what the IDF later said was the result of a professional error by the pilots.