“It’s, at the very least, an unfortunate decision that will embolden the regime,” Dempsey said at an afternoon news conference at the Pentagon.
The missiles, which are fired from mobile batteries on land, have more-advanced radar than similar versions in Syria’s arsenal and would probably force U.S. naval ships to remain farther off the Syrian coast in the event of hostilities. But Hagel and Dempsey said the larger risk is that Assad will think that he is somehow safer and engage in more-provocative attacks that could engulf the region in a war.
Kerry has made clear to Moscow that the administration wants Russia to stop supplying weapons to Syria. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday that the department was unaware of new shipments of anti-ship missiles to Syria, suggesting the versions were already in the arms pipeline.
Five ships from Russia’s Pacific Fleet entered the Mediterranean on Thursday after the long trip from Vladivostok and were to stop in Cyprus en route to a rendezvous with the rest of the task force, already in place. The exercise, Pukhov said, is primarily a way for Russia to show that it is still in the “top league” and also an opportunity for Russian sailors and officers to gain some deep-water experience.
Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, has said that Russia should reestablish a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean to protect its interests there. Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union is in the Syrian port of Tartus, but it is not large. It is, however, in Syria’s Alawite homeland, where Assad, an Alawite, would be expected to make a last stand if his control of the rest of the country crumbles.
No date has been set for the Geneva peace conference, but Russian and U.S. officials hope to get it underway by early June.
Putin also discussed plans for the Syria conference by phone Friday with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Caroline Anning in Beirut contributed to this report.