longer article with some more interesting points
------------------------------ Russian Missiles Put Israel on Alert
Israel scrambled Wednesday to head off the sale of Russian missiles to its sworn enemy Syria, which Tel Aviv accuses of supporting Palestinian militants and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.
A senior Israeli official told The Associated Press in Jerusalem that the planned sale had strained relations with Moscow and that negotiations were underway to head off any deal ahead of Syrian President Bashar Assad's landmark visit to Russia later this month. "We had consultations over the past few days, and we hope to reach the necessary agreement,"
AP quoted Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom as saying.
Media in Jerusalem and Moscow gave conflicting reports as to the exact type of missiles being sought by Damascus, but Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said any kind would be unacceptable. "We have enough problems on the ground with Syria and we don't need more problems from the sky,"
Peres told AP.
Kommersant cited unnamed sources Wednesday as saying Russia was planning to sell Syria its Iskander-E high-precision surface-to-surface missile. With a range of 280 kilometers and the ability to overcome existing air defense systems, Syria would be able to strike any part of Israel with the missile, including the Dimona nuclear center in the Negev desert. The paper said Damascus asked Moscow two years ago to sell it 18 Iskanders, which have no NATO equivalent and have never been exported. The price of a single Iskander is estimated to be about $5 million. Syria is also looking to buy advanced air defense systems S-300 PMU2 and Tor-M1, Kommersant said.
Reuters reported Israel's Channel Two television as saying the missiles under discussion were shoulder-fired Igla SA-18s, which could threaten Israeli aircraft over Syria and southern Lebanon.
Military analysts consider the Igla to be one of the most sophisticated missiles of its kind and an ideal weapon for militants. The United States would likely be concerned that such missiles could end up in the hands of Iraqi insurgents, the news agency said.
The Israeli and Russian foreign ministries downplayed the reports and denied any strain in the relationship between the two countries. "In our export policy we give special attention to prevention of sensitive arms getting into the hands of international terrorists, and the Israeli leadership knows this,"
Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The Israeli Embassy in Moscow said it "has nothing to react to as there is no crisis between the two countries."
Both the Syrian Embassy in Moscow and Rosoboronexport, Russia's state arms merchant, declined to comment.
A prominent defense think tank in Moscow, the Center for Analysis and Strategic Studies, said it was unlikely Russia would jeopardize its relationship with both Israel and the United States by selling missiles to Syria -- and suggested Kommersant's report was an attempt by its owner, self-exiled billionaire Boris Berezovsky, to embarrass President Vladimir Putin, who he helped bring to power. "I don't think it is serious,"
CAST director Ruslan Pukhov said. "It is hard to imagine that [Rosboronexport chief Viktor] Chemezov does not understand the consequences of such deliveries to Syria."
Even if Kommersant's report is true, Syria could not afford the roughly $2 billion that the weapons the paper mentioned would cost, Pukhov added. "It all looks like an information war against Putin orchestrated by Berezovsky,"
CAST deputy director Konstantin Makiyenko said.
Berezovsky said by telephone from London that he was familiar with the Kommersant story, but that he "categorically" had nothing to do with it.
The report came a day after Defense Minster Sergei Ivanov met his U.S. counterpart Donald Rumsfeld in Washington for talks on cracking down on the trafficking of shoulder-fired missiles, a favorite of terrorists.
Analysts pointed out that Russia has tried to sell missiles to Syria in the past and that Israel is clearly concerned about something.
Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported last week that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called a emergency meeting early earlier this month with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and the heads of the Israeli intelligence community to discuss a "mystery crisis" in Israel-Russian relations. Wednesday's Kommersant linked the crisis to Syrian missile sales.
According to Israel's Channel Two, tensions became more strained after Putin complained to Tel Aviv about "Israeli sources" pouring "huge sums of money" into the presidential campaign of Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who the Kremlin opposed.
Whatever the case, Syria would love to get its hands on Russian missiles, said Christopher Langton, head of defense analysis at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. "If this is true, Iskander will give a significant boost to Syria's missile capability, and if the S-300 is part of the deal it means that Syria is effectively covered from air attacks," Langton said by phone from London. "It would gain both offensive and defensive posture with this deal."
Siemon Wezeman, acting head of the arms transfer project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said Israel, with the help of Washington, got Russia to abandon a planned sale of Igla missiles to Syria two years ago. "Anything that goes to Syria, Israel will protest,"
The U.S. State Department repeatedly grilled Russia over a contract it signed in 1998 to sell Damascus its Metis-E and Kornet-E anti-tank missile systems, slapping economic sanctions on their maker, Tula-based Instrument-Building Design Bureau.
"Syria would like to buy more weapons from Russia to upgrade its arsenals imported from the Soviet Union,"
said Marat Kenzhetayev, an expert at the Center for Arms Control in Moscow.
Syria and Russia signed a number of agreements in the 1990s for the delivery of arms worth billions of dollars, but they were never realized.
"As there is no arms embargo against Syria, arms sales are legal but are frowned upon by the United States," Kenzhetayev said.
Langton of the International Institute of Strategic Studies said it would only be clear if there is a deal or not with Syria after Assad meets with Putin in St. Petersburg later this month.
"If this is true, the United States will see it as President Putin saying 'I can act as I please without talking to you about these things,' which will alarm them quite considerably," Langton said. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/storie...01/13/001.html