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Middle East

Russia stokes fears of an arms race with threat to deliver anti-aircraft missiles to Syria's Assad regime

Moscow says move is to restrain 'hot heads' in the West

Russia has said that it plans to deliver an advanced missile defence system to Bashar al-Assad that would strongly boost the embattled Syrian leader’s defensive capabilities, in part to restrain “hot heads” in the West from planning intervention scenarios.

Coming just a day after the EU failed to renew an embargo on delivering arms to the Syrian rebels, there is now a fear that an arms race could further intensify the Syrian civil war, which has already taken more than 80,000 lives.

Last night it was reported that The White House has asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a no-fly zone inside Syria.

Moscow has repeatedly said it is only selling Syria defensive weapons and is not signing new contracts, just honouring those already signed, but had been ambiguous over whether such contracts included the S300 system. After the EU announcement, the Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov gave the strongest indication yet that Moscow does plan to give Syria the system.

"We believe that such steps to a large extent help restrain some 'hotheads' considering a scenario to give an international dimension to this conflict," said Mr Ryabkov, who noted that as the Syrian rebels do not have an air force, the defence system would only be effective against attack. "We understand the concerns and signals sent to us from different capitals. We realise that many of our partners are concerned about the issue," said Mr Ryabkov. "We have no reason to revise our stance."

Russia's announcement drew a furious response from Israel, which has been strongly pressing Moscow not to sell Syria the S300 system, and suggested it would launch air strikes against the shipments if the delivery does take place.

Israel has already launched air strikes in Syria against shipments of weapons apparently intended for Hezbollah, and if Mr Assad's regime does gain the S300 system, such attacks would become more difficult. "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," said the Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon. "If, God forbid, they do reach Syria, we will know what to do."

Mr Ryabkov also criticised the EU for lifting the arms embargo on the rebels. The EU's 27 members failed to renew the embargo, after more than 12 hours of negotiations, and as of Saturday, individual states will be able to export weapons.

The most vocal opposition to removing the embargo came from Austria. But Alexander Schallenberg, a spokesman for the country's Foreign Minister, suggested that he was happy with the compromise.

The US also gave its backing to the EU's decision. The State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said while it was ultimately a decision for the EU, the US supported easing the embargo "as a part of the international community's efforts to demonstrate its full support for the Syrian opposition".

Meanwhile, David Cameron was facing a political backlash over the removal of the embargo.

The Government said it already had the authority to supply arms to the Syrian opposition forces, but had no plans to do so yet.

Signalling a breakdown on consensus on the issue, Douglas Alexander, the shadow Foreign Secretary, expressed his alarm over the arms threat and called for a Commons statement. He said: "Syria is awash with arms, and today it remains unclear how escalating the conflict with British-supplied weapons would help bring about a peaceful political transition after two years of increasing violence.

"If the UK government now intends to supply weapons to Syria's opposition, it must set out to the Commons how it will prevent weapons falling into the wrong hands, and how this step will shorten Syria's civil war rather than prolong it."

The former Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, said it was "beyond comprehension" how shipping arms could bring peace.

Oxfam has warned that supplying weapons would mean "adding fuel to the fire".

Mr Cameron's spokesman stressed that no decision had yet be taken to arm the rebels. He said: "The Prime Minister's view is that it is right that we have the flexibility to respond if the regime refuses to negotiate. What we are doing is sending a signal, loud and clear, to the regime."

Q&A: What does lifting the embargo mean?

Q. So what exactly was agreed in Brussels on Monday?

A. It was more a case of what was not agreed. Because all 27 member states could not reach a unanimous agreement on amending the arms embargo, which the British and French were pushing for, or renewing it – the hope of the Austrian-led bloc – the ban now automatically expires.

Q. What about all the economic, financial and military sanctions on the regime?

A. EU foreign ministers pledged to ensure all other sanctions against the regime would be renewed when they expire at the end of this month.

Q. So who will start shipping arms to the rebels?

A. Right now, no one. William Hague has said neither Britain nor France wants to send weapons to the rebels just yet, they simply want the flexibility to do so. They argue that the threat of sending weapons will strengthen the hand of the opposition ahead of negotiations with the regime in Geneva next month.

Q. Are they right? Is Assad going to shift his position?

A. Most analysts say no, the EU decision will not change the military calculations of Assad, who is determined to fight to the bitter end. Some warn the move could spur Iran, Russia and Hezbollah to increase their support for the regime to counter any British and French involvement.

Q. When might we see a shift in the British and French position?

A. A lot depends on the outcome of the Geneva talks. If there is no sign of the regime making concessions, then they may start considering deeper involvement. The opposition will also start demanding that their allies back up their bark with some bite.