Russia Hints it May Provide Advanced Air Defenses to Syria

Fragments of US “tomahawk” cruise missiles captured by Syrian forces in a recent attack, are displayed at a briefing in the Russian Defense Ministry in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

BEIRUT (AP) — The Russian military indicated on Wednesday it will supply the Syrian government with a sophisticated air defense system following Moscow’s condemnation of the missile attack launched by the United States, Britain and France earlier this month.

Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said Russia will supply Syria with “new missile defense systems soon.” Rudskoi’s statement did not specify the type of weapons, but his remarks follow reports in the Russian media that Moscow is considering selling its S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Syria.

Top Russian officials said that in light of the airstrikes on Syria earlier this month, Moscow may reconsider a pledge it gave a decade ago not to provide Syria with the S-300 system. The strikes were in retaliation to an April 7 suspected chemical weapons attack in the town of Douma, near Damascus, that killed more than 40 people.

The U.S., Britain and France blamed the attack on President Bashar Assad’s government. The three governments launched airstrikes into Syria, hitting alleged chemical weapons facilities. Syria and Russia, a key ally of Assad, strongly deny the Syrian government was behind the attack.

Transferring upgraded air-defense systems to Syria could be seen as an escalation by neighboring Israel and raises the risk of Israeli attacks.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned Tuesday that if Syria uses Russian-made air defense missiles against Israel, the IDF will strike back.

“What’s important to us is that the defensive weapons the Russians are giving Syria won’t be used against us,” Lieberman told Israeli news website Ynet. “If they’re used against us, we’ll act against them.”

Israel has not taken sides in the Syrian civil war, but its air force has carried out dozens of airstrikes during the fighting, most of them believed to have been aimed at suspected arms shipments to Hezbollah. More recently, Israel has warned that it will not accept a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria.

In February, Israel shot down what it said was an armed Iranian drone that penetrated its airspace from Syria. Israel responded by carrying out airstrikes in Syria, drawing anti-aircraft fire that shot down an Israeli warplane. Israel then retaliated by destroying Syrian anti-aircraft batteries.

Israel and Russia have maintained close contact in order to prevent any clashes between their air forces in the skies over Syria. In the interview, Lieberman said that Russia already has air-defense systems in Syria. He said Israel’s concerns are Iran and Syria.

“For several years we’ve been constantly in coordination and able to avoid friction with the Russians,” he told Ynet. “The only ones to act against us are the Syrians. When the Syrian systems acted against us, we destroyed them,” the defense minister stressed.

“One thing should be clear. If anyone’s shooting at our planes, we’ll destroy them,” he said.

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