- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Russia’s decision Tuesday to go ahead with the delivery of a sophisticated air-defense system to Syria will prove a a huge advantage to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in its war against Western-backed insurgents, according to analysts.

The sale of the Russian-built S-300 anti-aircraft missile system, “is a massive game changer,” said Anthony Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington DC. 

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced Moscow’s decision to press ahead with supplying the missiles the day after the EU failed to renew its weapons embargo on the Syrian civil war, potentially clearing the way for Britain and France to begin arming the rebels.

“We consider these supplies a stabilizing factor and believe such steps will deter some hotheads from considering scenarios that would turn the conflict international with the involvement of outside forces,” said Mr. Ryabkov, according to the BBC.

IHS Jane’s Middle East analyst David Hartwell said “hotheads” was likely “a reference to Israel which has carried out two air raids in Syria in 2013 on what it alleged were Hezbollah-bound weapons convoys.” 

Mr. Ryabkov added that the contract for the S-300 had been signed several years ago, before protests against Mr. Assad’s regime boiled over into a civil war in 2011.  

Russia’s envoy to NATO, Aleksandr Grushko, said Moscow was acting “fully within the framework of international law.”

“We are not doing anything that could change the situation in Syria. The arms that we supply are defensive weapons,” Mr. Grushko said, according to the BBC.

But if Moscow goes ahead with delivery, and Syria is able to successfully integrate the missiles into its air defense system, said Mr. Cordesman, it will make much more difficult and more dangerous both the establishment of any U.S.-enforced “no-fly” zone for the rebels; and future Israeli air strikes aimed at stopping weapons transfers to terrorist groups like Hezbollah.

Moreover, he added in an email, “It virtually ensures that the US-Russian [backed peace conference slated for Geneva next month] will be meaningless.”

Mr. Cordesman added the S-300 would also raise the regional stakes, sending “warning signals about similar arms transfers [from Russia] to Iran.”

The S-300 is an advanced, road-mobile, surface-to-air missile system that, like the U.S. Patriot to which it is broadly comparable, can shoot down missiles as well as  aircraft.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met Monday in Paris to discuss the proposed Geneva conference, and “the timing of [Ryabkov’s] announcement is certain to produce fresh allegations that Russia is intent on helping [Mr.] Assad stay in power,” Said Mr. Hartwell.

The two-year old conflict is “fundamentally changing the U.S. strategic position in the Middle East in ways that have nothing to do with the war on terrorism,” said Mr. Cordesman.