Israel warns Russia's transfer of advanced missile defence systems to Syria will 'endanger' region

Israel’s prime minister has accused Moscow of handing advanced S-300 weaponry to ‘irresponsible hands’ as Russian media revealed as many as eight batteries could be deployed in coming weeks

Bel Trew
Tuesday 25 September 2018 20:13 BST
Russia releases animation claiming Israel downed jet

Israel has warned Russia it will endanger the Middle East region by sending a powerful air defence system to Syria, as Russian media revealed Moscow could deliver up to eight batteries within the next few weeks.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Vladimir Putin that Moscow was handing the advanced system to “irresistible players”. On Tuesday the Israeli premier held a security council meeting to discuss the development, before flying to New York where he is expected to raise the issue with Donald Trump at the United Nations General Assembly.

Israel and its key ally the US have long lobbied the Russian leader not to provide the S-300 missile system to the Assad regime, which Russia has backed since intervening in the civil war in 2015.

Both countries fear it could hinder Israel’s aerial capability to strike buildups of Iranian forces and Hezbollah, who are also fighting in Syria on President Assad’s behalf.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said on Monday that Moscow had in the past obliged Israel but that changed when Russia blamed Israel for indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military jet in Syria last week, which killed 15 Russian service members.

“Transferring advanced weapons systems into irresponsible hands will increase the dangers in the region,” Mr Netanyahu told President Putin during a Monday phone call.

“Israel will continue to defend its security and its interests,” he added.

Mr Netanyahu reiterated that the responsibility for the air crash lay with the Syrian military, which brought down the plane, and Iran, “whose aggression is undermining stability”.

US national security adviser John Bolton, meanwhile, called the missile transfer a “major mistake” and a “significant escalation” of Syria’s seven-year war.

Russian newspaper Kommersant, quoting unnamed military sources, revealed on Tuesday that Russia would deliver, at first, two to four S-300 missile systems to cover the coastline of Syria, as well as the borders with Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. However, that could be increased to up to eight units, the daily added.

Russian media also reported on Tuesday that electronic equipment designed to interrupt radar and navigation equipment for warplanes had already been deployed to Syria.

Russia claimed Syrian anti-aircraft batteries shot down its IL-20 surveillance plane by mistake over western Syria, shortly after Israeli jets hit a nearby target. Moscow accused Israel of failing to give adequate notice of the attack, putting the Russian aircraft in the path of Syrian air defence systems, creating dangerous conditions that caused the crash.

Defence minister Shoigu said the incident forced Moscow to take “adequate retaliatory measures to keep its troops safe”.

Israel, which has carried out multiple airstrikes in Syria largely against Iranian targets, fiercely denied the accusation but said it would work to improve “deconfliction” of its missions with Russian forces. Mr Netanyahu has vowed to continue the sorties that he sees as vital to stopping Iran’s plan to build permanent military infrastructure just across the border in Syria.

A Russian anti-aircraft missile system S-300 takes off at the International Army Games 2017
A Russian anti-aircraft missile system S-300 takes off at the International Army Games 2017 (EPA)

In May Iranian forces fired at least 20 Grad missiles from Syrian bases it controls into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Although the barrage of rockets did little damage, Israel hit back with dozens of airstrikes on Iranian infrastructure in Syria fearing further attacks.

Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, tweeted that Russia’s claim Israel was to blame for last week’s crash was “fake news” meant to assuage diplomatic pressures and cloud the responsibility of Syrian and Russian officers for downing the plane.

“Supplying S-300 increases risk by unprofessional Syrian operators first and foremost to the Russian air force, to Israel, the United States and the coalition as well as to civil aviation,” Mr Yadlin added. “Israel has been preparing for this threat for 20 years and will know how to handle it.”

The S-300 is not Russia’s most advanced air defence system but it has been compared to the US Patriot Air and Missile Defence System and could be a game changer for the Syrian regime.

Analysts writing in Israeli media warned that while it would not stop Israel from striking Iranian targets in Syria it would significantly curb the country’s freedom of action.

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