Kerry declined to directly denounce the reported agreement between Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but his warning to Moscow was unmistakable.
The United States has long said that the proliferation of surface-to-air missiles “is potentially destabilizing with respect to the state of Israel,” Kerry said. “We have made it very clear historically that that is a concern of the United States.”
Russia has long supplied Assad’s forces, but the potential sale of antiaircraft weapons reported Thursday by the Wall Street Journal threatens to undermine the agreement that Kerry won in Moscow this week to press jointly for peace talks between Assad and his U.S.-backed opponents.
Moscow has previously sparred with Western governments over sales of helicopter and tank parts to the embattled Assad regime. But the S-300 missiles, if delivered, would represent a huge leap in Syria’s ability to defend against Israeli airstrikes and any effort to impose a no-fly zone in support of anti-Assad rebels.
The S-300 system, considered one of the most potent air-defense systems in use, can track as many as 100 incoming aircraft or missiles at once, and engage up to a dozen, at long range.
“It would be a game-changer,” a senior Western diplomat said of the reported decision to offer the missiles to Assad. The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because details of the reported offer remain classified, speculated that Moscow could be seeking leverage ahead of talks on a possible political settlement to the Syrian crisis.
Russia was heavily criticized in 2007 when it signed a deal to sell S-300 batteries to Iran for $800 million. Russian officials eventually terminated the contract, citing new U.N. resolutions banning the export of advanced missile systems to Tehran.
“After discussions with us, they did decide not to provide the missiles to the Iranians,” recalled Dennis Ross, who was a senior Middle East adviser to the Obama administration in 2010, when Russia halted the missile sale to Iran. “If they proceed now, it hardly signals that they are prepared to walk away from Assad.”
Kerry has declined to draw a comparison between the military aid provided by Moscow to the Syrian government and what has, until now, been the U.S. choice to send only humanitarian and nonmilitary assistance to the rebel forces. President Obama is considering whether to reverse that decision and provide arms to the rebels, as some Arab states are doing.
Kerry met earlier Thursday with the foreign minister of Jordan, which is staggering under the weight of more than 500,000 Syrian refugees. Kerry said that about $43 million of a new $100 million U.S. aid package pledged for Syrian refugees will go to Jordan.