Sharon: Russian missiles being sold to Syria do threaten Israel
PM: Israel cannot intervene in Russian weapons sales to other countries; Putin says will go ahead with the deal.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Israel Radio that Israel does not accept the Russian assessment that the anti-aircraft missiles Russia intends to sell Syria do not threaten Israel, in an interview broadcast Thursday.
"What concerns us with the shoulder-launched missiles, the anti-aircraft missiles, is that they can find their way into the hands of terrorist organizations," Sharon said.
The prime minister said, however, that Israel cannot intervene in Russian weapons sales to other countries.
Israel has been trying to apply as much pressure as it can to deter the Russians from selling Syrian the SA-18 missiles, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been convinced. He decided to go ahead with the sale after promising Sharon that the missiles would be vehicle-mounted, and impossible to convert into shoulder-launched rockets that could end up in the hands of one of the terror organizations that Damascus hosts.
The missiles "will of course make it difficult to fly over the residence of the Syrian president," Putin bluntly stated Wednesday. "It will make flying low difficult," implying what has long been believed to be the reason for the sale of the anti-aircraft missiles: Syrian embarrassment over Israeli air force planes "buzzing" presidential palaces in Syria to issue warnings to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Russian president, who gave an interview to Channel One ahead of his historic visit next week to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, said the sale of the missiles to Syria would not upset the balance of power in the Middle East.
A government source in Jerusalem said Wednesday night that "Russia, which is fighting terror with one hand, is helping a state that supports terror with the other hand."
In the interview, Putin referred to his good relations with Sharon and to the criticism leveled at him by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, because of his initiative to extend his term beyond the limits imposed by the Russian constitution. He said Russia would "abide by the existing law in Russia and not the attitudes of our allies," adding that "we would be happy if Rice runs for president one day in the U.S."
While Putin emphasized that the missile Russia is selling to Syria is vehicle launched and hardly a threat to Israeli planes, Israel is particularly worried by shoulder-launched versions of the missile, which could end up in the hands of Hezbollah along the Lebanese-Israeli border and limit Israeli air force overflights into Lebanon.
Shoulder-launched missiles would also worry the U.S., which fears that they could end up in the hands of terror groups operating against U.S. forces in Iraq.
However, Israeli defense sources say the deal gives cause for concern even if it is a vehicle-mounted missile. The missile launchers could easily be dismantled, and with relatively simple engineering be transformed into shoulder-launched rockets.
Moreover, say Israeli sources, even if the missiles remain in the hands of the Syrian army they could be a threat to Israeli planes, if they try flying into Syrian air space.
Although the air force has various means to disrupt anti-aircraft weapons fired at its planes, the presence of advanced anti-aircraft weapons in Syria would require a change in the flight profiles of the Israeli planes on Syrian sorties in the future.