Israel’s defence minister on Tuesday signalled that his military is prepared to strike shipments of advanced Russian weapons to Syria, in a rare implied threat to Moscow.
Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon issued his warning shortly after a top Russian official said his government reserves the right to provide Syria with state-of-the-art S-300 air defence missiles.
Israel has been lobbying Moscow to drop the sale, fearing the missiles would upset the balance of power in the region and could slip into the hands of hostile groups, including the Lebanese militant Hezbollah, a close ally of the Syrian regime.
“As far as we are concerned, that is a threat,” Yaalon told reporters when asked about the S300s.
“At this stage I can’t say there is an escalation. The shipments have not been sent on their way yet. And I hope that they will not be sent,” he said. But “if God forbid they do reach Syria, we will know what to do.”
In Moscow, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, wouldn’t say whether Russia has shipped any of the long-range S-300 air defence missile systems, but insisted that Moscow isn’t going to abandon the deal despite strong Western and Israeli criticism.
“We understand the concerns and signals sent to us from different capitals. We realize that many of our partners are concerned about the issue,” Ryabkov said. “We have no reason to revise our stance.”
He said the missiles could be a deterrent against foreign intervention in Syria and would not be used against Syrian rebels, who do not have an air force.
“We believe that such steps to a large extent help restrain some ’hotheads’ considering a scenario to give an international dimension to this conflict,” he said.