Fears that Russia might sell advanced weaponry to Syria kicked up a mini-storm of concern in Israel on Thursday.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, in Russia for talks with President Dmitry Medvedev, has been 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 hand-wringing among Israeli officials and analysts. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel was “analyzing the ramifications” of Assad’s 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 right-wing 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” on buying more arms. But Lavrov added, “We are indeed prepared to sell only defensive weapons which do not violate the regional balance of power.”
Anatoly Yurkov, Russia’s acting ambassador to Israel, 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 on Wednesday evening to affirm ties between the two countries, according to the Israeli newspaper Maariv. Olmert specifically asked the Russian leader not to approve any sales of advanced weapons to Syria, the paper reported.
The Russian weapons that most concern Israeli officials are the S-300 surface-to-air missile and the Iskander-E, a surface-to-surface missile with a reported maximum range of 170 miles.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, citing Russian media, said Assad offered to let Moscow deploy Iskander missiles in Syria as a response to a deal signed by Washington and Warsaw this week to place elements of a U.S. missile defense system in Poland, which has aggravated Moscow’s ties with the West.
Although Russian officials remained noncommittal about specific weapons sales, analysts said that closer Russian-Syrian military cooperation was a very real possibility for a variety of reasons.
Moscow remains upset by the nearly universal condemnation it has 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 Moscow’s actions during his meeting with Medvedev in the Russian Black Sea resort 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 Assad) was one of its primary client states.
“The timing of Assad’s visit is very important. It happens at the time when Russia is very angry at the United States,” said Alexander Golts, a defense analyst for Yezhednevny Zhurnal, an independent Russian online publication. “It is highly possible that Russia, being so angered by the West and the United States, now may sell something very nasty to Syria.”
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.