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May 17, 2013 11:56 pm
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said the supply of sophisticated Russian missiles could encourage Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to believe he is safer from outside military action than he really is.
“It is at the very least an unfortunate decision which will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering,” Gen Dempsey said.
According to US officials, the Russian arms include Yakhont anti-ship missiles, which have a range of 300km and are harder to detect and shoot down than most of the missiles the Syrian military has at its disposal.
By potentially pushing US ships further from the Syrian coast, the missiles could make it harder for the US to launch air strikes against Syrian military sites – one of the options the Pentagon has looked into as the administration debates whether to intervene directly in the two-year long civil war.
“It pushes the stand-off distance out a little more and increases risks but it’s not impossible to overcome,” Gen Dempsey said of the missiles. “What I really worry about is that Assad will decide that since he’s got these systems he is somehow safer [and he will become] more prone to a miscalculation.”
Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, told Congress last month that Russia was supplying Syria with Yakhont missiles which had the potential to be “a major threat to naval operations”.
The new scrutiny about Russian anti-ship missiles comes after reports last week that Russia was supplying advanced air defence missile systems to Syria.
Russian officials argue that any new shipments of arms to Syria are the result of established contracts rather than a new effort to provide military assistance.
“We haven’t concealed that we have been supplying weapons to Syria based on signed contracts without violating any international treaties or Russian legislation, one of the strictest in the world in terms of export control,” Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister said on Friday.
The Obama administration has in recent weeks made a push to engage Moscow’s support over the Syrian civil war, with the two governments agreeing to try and organise a conference next month in search of a political and diplomatic solution to the conflict. John Kerry, secretary of state, has met Mr Lavrov several times in recent weeks to try and find common ground.
However, critics of the administration say the prospect of new talks is being used by the Russians and others to forestall increased US support for the rebel groups fighting the Assad regime.
Also on Friday, Chuck Hagel, defence secretary, said that “one of the primary reasons that secretary of state John Kerry went to Moscow was to find some ... intersection of interests in the Middle East”.
He added: “We continue to work with the Russians and do everything we can to convince the powers in the region to be careful with escalation of military options and equipment.”
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