Syria to Acquire Russian Missiles

Wade Boese

Russian President Vladimir Putin has brushed aside U.S. and Israeli objections and risked U.S. sanctions by authorizing the sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.

In an April 20 interview with Israel’s Channel One television network, Putin said Russia had declined to sell Syria surface-to-surface missiles that could threaten Israeli territory but had approved the sale of anti-aircraft missiles. How many missiles Russia plans to export to Syria remains unconfirmed.

In the interview, Putin justified the deal as being solely for defensive purposes and refuted the notion that it might affect the region’s military balance. He asserted the sale would make it “more difficult to make low-altitude flights over the residence of the president of Syria.” Israel has used combat aircraft before in this manner to send blunt messages to the regime in Damascus.

The Russian president argued that the SA-18 anti-aircraft missiles would be mounted on vehicles and could not be converted into shoulder-launched systems. “These systems are set on vehicles, and they cannot be unnoticeably handed over to terrorist organizations,” Putin said. He further maintained that Russian officials would retain the authority and ability to verify that the systems stay in Syria.

U.S. and Israeli officials, however, fear that the missiles could end up aiding terrorist groups that Damascus supports, such as Hezbollah, which regularly launches attacks against Israel from Lebanon.

Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said May 4 that the United States remains concerned. “There’s a controversy about whether [the Russians] have addressed it in an adequate way,” Hadley stated.

Shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, known as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), have emerged in recent years as a top proliferation concern worldwide because of their potential to enable an individual to bring down a commercial or military aircraft with a single shot. Terrorists unsuccessfully tried to use MANPADS to bring down an Israeli commercial airliner leaving Kenya in November 2002.

Washington and Moscow concluded a new bilateral agreement last February to destroy excess MANPADS and tighten export controls over such weapons. (See ACT, March 2005.) They also agreed to “consult in certain instances on transfers to problematic countries,” the Department of State told Arms Control Today after the two sides announced the deal. U.S. officials said at that time that the Kremlin claimed its proposed sale to Syria was not subject to the latest U.S.-Russian agreement because the missiles were vehicle mounted.

Still, Moscow could be penalized by the United States for delivering the missiles. The U.S. Foreign Assistance Act calls on Washington to deny aid under the act to governments transferring “lethal military equipment” to countries that it designates as state sponsors of terrorism. These countries currently include Syria, Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Sudan.

Washington can waive the sanctions if it believes it is in the U.S. interest to do so. In March 1999, the Clinton administration decided against sanctioning Moscow for exporting anti-tank missiles to Syria, claiming U.S. assistance to Russia was too important to cut. Instead, Washington levied sanctions against the specific Russian companies involved in the transaction. (See ACT, March 1999.)

Moscow provided Damascus with billions of dollars worth of weapons during the Cold War. That steady stream dwindled to a trickle after the Soviet Union’s collapse as Russia demanded Syria pay for additional purchases with cash rather than credit. Earlier this year, Russia reportedly waived approximately three-quarters of Syria’s $13 billion debt, much of which stemmed from weapons deals. Russia’s debt forgiveness, however, is not expected to lead to a jump in Syrian arms buys because Moscow is still demanding cash payments for its weapons exports.