"No contract has been signed. It's tantamount to us announcing the sale of a `Lenin' ice-breaker to Bahrain," scoffed Mikhail Margelov in reference to the reports on the missile deal between Russia and Syria. As chairman of the Russian Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee and a close associate of President Vladimir Putin, Margelov is a very important man in Russia.
"We are not holding talks with Syria on these missiles," reiterated Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov during his visit to Washington last week.
It would be a mistake, of course, to conclude from the statements of Margelov and Ivanov that a missile deal between Russia and Syria won't be signed during the course of Syrian President Bashar Assad's upcoming visit to Moscow on January 24. But the bigger mistake lies in magnifying the inherent threat in the missiles that are slated to be sold to Syria, and in Israel's superfluous, damaging and futile attempt to pressure Russia publicly to cancel the deal.
The sale of missiles to countries around the world is a distinct Russian economic interest. Therefore, anyone who believes that Russia can be swayed from making such sales in the name of its friendship with Israel, and because officials in Jerusalem charge that the missiles constitute a threat, is mistaken. Moreover, these sales also promote an important strategic interest. In the wake of Russia losing its grip in most Middle Eastern states, Putin is trying to rehabilitate its status in the region, and arms sales are an important tool in achieving this objective.
But even if Iskander (SS-26) ballistic missiles are sold to Damascus, the strategic balance between Syria and Israel won't change. For quite some time already, the Syrians have been in possession of hundreds of missiles - many of which are armed with chemical warheads - that are capable of striking any point in Israel. The addition of the Iskander, which has a shorter range (280 kilometers) than that of the Scud Cs and Ds already deployed in Syria, would not constitute a new and substantially different threat.
It's a different story indeed when it comes to the SA-18 surface-to-air missiles. These missiles are better at intercepting aircraft than those the Syrians are equipped with today. But there's no need to overreact in this case either. After all, the Israel Air Force patrols the skies of Lebanon, and Syria does too when necessary, in keeping with scenarios that are based on the assumption that such missiles (or their ilk - i.e., U.S. Stingers) are already in the region in the hands of terror organizations.
The real, and justified, concern stems from the transfer of these anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah, which could use them against civilian aircraft, and not necessarily only Israeli ones. But in this case, it appears that it will be possible to make it clear to the Syrians that if these missiles fall into the hands of the Shi'ite organization, Syria will have to pay the price for it.
In general, dealing with the issue of the circulation of anti-aircraft missiles has become the domain of the international community, led by the United States, particularly in the wake of the attempt to shoot down an Arkia jet in Mombasa in November 2002 using a Strella missile (on which the SA-18 is based). The fear is that terror groups that are equipped with surface-to-air missiles - whether they be Russian or American (the whereabouts of thousands of Stinger missiles that were handed over to the Mujahideen during the war in Afghanistan remain unknown) - will endanger civil aviation throughout the world.
This is the reason why Israel should entrust the U.S. with the task of dealing with the issue of the sale of Russian missiles to Syria. The Americans and Europeans, and not Israel, should be the ones pressuring the regime in Moscow. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana have expressed concern about the missile deal that is in the works. Furthermore, the U.S. and Russia are about to sign an agreement on restricting the sale of surface-to-air missiles. The agreement, which is designed to prevent these missiles from slipping into the hands of the terror organizations, will be signed, in all likelihood, next month.
Nevertheless, the danger of missiles of this kind, regardless of the Syrian deal, must lead to the expedited development of defense systems for installation in civilian aircraft. It appears this matter is not being dealt with in Israel with the required urgency.
The local military establishment has an ongoing tendency of magnifying threats in order to justify increasing the defense budget. But it appears that this time, the threat of the missile deal is being magnified, in fact, by the political echelon, which is seeking to justify the rejection of Bashar Assad's request to conduct political negotiations. After all, how can one talk peace to someone who is purchasing missiles?
This is a weak argument because just like any other country, including Israel, Syria will not stop arming itself just because its leader is turning his attention to political talks. Furthermore, the only way in which the Syrian army can try to cope with Israel's aerial supremacy is through the acquisition of ballistic missiles and the boosting of its aerial defense systems.
Aside from this, what did those who approved the supersonic "buzz" by F-16s over Assad's summer palace in Latakia expect? That he would look up to the skies and applaud the maneuvers of the Israeli pilots? Strengthening his country's aerial defenses is the least the Syrian president can do.
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