Kerry scolds Russia over reported sale of missiles to Syria
ROME — Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday cautioned Russia against selling advanced surface-to-air missiles to Syria's government forces, as U.S. officials warn that the delivery of the arms would threaten Israel and undercut efforts to reach a political agreement.
“We've made it crystal clear that we prefer that Russia would not supply them assistance,” Kerry said.
He declined to denounce the reported agreement between Russia and Syria's President Bashar Assad directly, but his warning to Russia was unmistakable.
The United States has said that the proliferation of surface-to-air missiles “is potentially destabilizing with respect to the state of Israel,” Kerry said. “We have made it very clear historically that that is a concern.”
Russia has supplied Assad's forces for a long time, but the potential sale of anti-aircraft weapons threatens to undermine the agreement that Kerry won in Moscow this week to press jointly for peace talks between Assad and his U.S.-backed opponents, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.
Russia has sparred with Western governments over sales of helicopter and tank parts to the embattled regime. But the S-300 missiles, if delivered, would represent a huge leap in Syria's ability to defend itself from Israeli airstrikes as well as any future effort to impose a no-fly zone in support of Syria's rebels.
Considered one of the most potent air-defense systems in use, the S-300 can track as many as 100 incoming aircraft or missiles at once and engage up to a dozen, at long range.
“It would be a game-changer,” a senior Western diplomat said of the reported decision to offer the missiles to Assad. The diplomat, who insisted on anonymity because details of the alleged offer remain classified, speculated that Russia could be seeking leverage before talks on a possible political settlement to the Syrian crisis.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah's chief in Lebanon said his militant group will receive strategic weapons from the Assad regime, the Associated Press reported.
Last week, Israeli airstrikes targeted alleged shipments of advanced Iranian missiles bound for Hezbollah.
Israel has signaled it will respond with airstrikes to any future weapons shipments, meaning it could quickly get drawn into Syria's civil war if the Hezbollah chief's declaration is more than an empty threat.