- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2018

Russia announced Monday it will provide its ally’s government with sophisticated anti-aircraft systems after last week’s downing of a Russian plane by Syria forces responding to an Israeli air strike, a transfer that would stoke already soaring tensions in the region.

The decision by Russian defense officials to order emergency deployments of its advanced S-300 anti-aircraft systems into Syria, days after Moscow claimed Israeli forces prompted the downing of a Russian surveillance aircraft and its 15-person crew, is a clear “obstruction to peace” in Syria and the region, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Monday.

“Any additional weapons going in keeps [President Bashar Assad] in a position to threaten the region,” Mr. Mattis told reporters at the Defense Department. “Anything like this puts him in a position as an obstruction to peace.”

The S-300 air defense systems will be in the hands of Mr. Assad’s forces within the next two weeks, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Monday. The new air defense systems will be directly linked to Russian outposts scattered throughout Syria, to “guarantee that Russian aircraft are identified by Syrian air defenses,” he said.

Moscow has been a key ally of Mr. Assad in Syria’s brutal civil war and is positioned to have a major say in the country’s future as the government appears to be near victory over the leading rebel groups. The incident in which Syrian air defenses shot down a Russian plane while responding to an Israeli airstrike has angered the Kremlin but given it an opportunity to expand its footprint.

“Russia will jam satellite navigation, on-board radars and communication systems of combat aircraft, which attack targets in the Syrian territory, in the regions over waters of the Mediterranean Sea bordering with Syria,” Mr. Shoigu added. The new S-300 deployments come in addition to the reported S-400 long-range anti-aircraft and missile defense systems already in the field in Syria.

National Security Adviser John R. Bolton characterized the move as a “significant escalation” in already rising tensions between Washington and Moscow in Syria, The Associated Press reported. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to discuss the issue with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during this week’s U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Mr. Mattis said Monday that there had been no communication between either the Pentagon or U.S. Central Command and their Russian counterparts prior to Monday’s announcement by Moscow. Russian forces backing the Assad regime and members of the U.S. coalition battling the Islamic State in Syria have maintained an uneasy detente since the beginning of coalition operations in the country four years ago.

Pentagon officials also declined to comment on whether U.S. forces in Syria have increased defensive measures or shifted their operations, as a result of the influx of new Russian weaponry.

“Any additional weapons being provided to the Assad regime risks an escalation of the conflict and exacerbation of the humanitarian situation. We call on all parties to support the U.N.-led Geneva peace process to resolve the hostilities in Syria,” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Kone Faulkner.

The downing of the Russian I1-20 reconnaissance plane took place late last week. Israeli commanders sent in four bombers into Syrian airspace to take out a nearby Syrian weapons facility, housing weapons which Israel argued argue would have ultimately been transferred to the terrorist group Hezbollah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the Russian arms deal, saying “transferring advanced weapons to irresponsible hands will increase the dangers in the region.”

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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