Israel fears Russian weapons sales to Syria

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM - Fears that Russia might sell advanced weaponry to Syria kicked up a mini-storm of concern in Israel yesterday.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, in Russia for talks with President Dmitry Medvedev, has been openly campaigning to acquire weapons systems that include long-range surface-to-surface missiles, according to Russian media reports.

The news of Assad's reported ambitions prompted immediate anxiety amid Israeli officials and analysts.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel was "analyzing the ramifications" of Assad's current visit.

Knesset Member Silvan Shalom said Israel should demand that Moscow refrain from "arming its enemies."

"Arming Syria would lead to a strategic change and could destabilize the Middle East and the world," said Shalom, a member of the opposition Likud Party.

The deal, however, is far from done.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country was "ready to consider requests from the Syrian side" to buy more arms.

But Lavrov added, "We are indeed prepared to sell only defensive weapons which do not violate the regional balance of power."

Russia's acting ambassador in Israel, Anatoly Yurkov, was even more direct.

"Why in the world would we need to deploy our missiles [in Syria]? Against whom? We have no enemies in the region," Yurkov told the Israeli news site Ynet.

Medvedev phoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Wednesday evening to affirm ties between the two countries, according to the Israeli newspaper Maariv. Olmert specifically asked his Russian counterpart not to approve any advanced weapons sales to Damascus, the paper reported.

The Russian weapons that most concern Israeli officials are the S-300 surface-to-air missiles and Iskander E's, surface-to-surface missiles with a reported maximum range of 170 miles.

The Haaretz newspaper, citing Russian news media, said Assad offered to host the Iskander missiles as a response to a deal signed by Washington and Warsaw this week to deploy elements of a U.S. missile defense system in Poland, which has aggravated Moscow's relations with the West.

While Russian officials remained noncommittal about specific weapons sales, analysts said closer Russian-Syrian military cooperation in the future was a very real possibility for a variety of reasons.

Moscow remains upset at the nearly universal condemnation it received for its recent military campaign against Georgia in support of two breakaway regions. Israel helped supply weapons to Georgia, and Assad made a point of defending Russia's actions during his meeting with Medvedev in the Russian resort town of Sochi.

"We understand Russia's stance regarding the breakaway regions and understand that it came in retaliation to Georgian provocation," Assad said.

Moscow also seeks to regain some of its Cold War regional sway, when Syria (under Bashar's father Hafez el Assad) was one of its primary client states.

The U.S.-Poland agreement also angered Russia, which views the move as a direct threat to its traditional sphere of influence.

Ashraf Khalil writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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