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Syrian Civil War: The Missile Gambit

June 1, 2013

Syrian Tanks-destroyed

The ongoing carnage in Syria may well have reached a turning point. Last month started with brazen Israeli airstrikes over a tense weekend. Rather than alter the course of the war, Assad’s military spent the ensuing weeks waging crucial battles in Damascus, Homs, and Al-Qusayr to dislodge rebel fighters amid growing fears that the West, with the tacit approval of the Gulf Arab states aiding the rebel opposition, are moving closer to attacking the regime.

To dissuade this course of action, Syria’s embattled strongman Bashar al-Assad hinted at receiving Russian-made S-300 air-defense systems during a TV interview. It was the kind of  revelation that made the West and Israel very anxious.

The missile deal together with substantial losses inflicted on the disorganized Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel factions forced the US and the EU’s hand. As May ended the UK and France agreed to lifting an arms embargo on the rebels, who are in reality a convoluted opposition with multiple sponsors.

The so-called FSA, for example, were originally defectors from the Syrian armed forces who were organized and groomed by Turkey. Jordan is another safe haven for rebel fighters, who can receive US-sponsored training and weapons there.

Qatar, on the other hand, succors independent battalions in the north of Syria while Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni ‘Islamist’ battalions in the south. Foreign volunteers from Arab countries and Western Europe—even the US—are supported by shadowy patrons from Gulf. The main hub for all these factions is the Turkish border, which serves as a giant arms bazaar, massively funneling weapons deliveries to the Syrian rebellion.

The Empire Strikes 

By the second week of May it became apparent that Assad’s forces were sweeping coastal towns and villages in Syria’s northwest to purge grass-roots support for the rebels. The ongoing battle in al-Qusayr, a border town sitting between Lebanon and the outskirts of Homs, intensified as Hezbollah joined the fighting to break the stalemate bogging down Assad’s tanks and infantry. As a result Hezbollah’s role in the war reached a new level of exposure.

On May 9, Assad’s regime allegedly began paying a fraction of $900 million price tag for six S-300 launchers and between 150-200 missiles.

The first veiled reference to the controversial S-300 deliveries were made during a press conference in Poland on May 11, where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met his German and Polish counterparts. Lavrov was there to discuss an agenda best-described as balancing Russian and NATO power in Europe.

During the press conference that concluded the Friday meeting with Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski and Germany’s Guido Westerwelle , Lavrov tackled questions on his talks as well as Syria.

Though asked about the S-300, Lavrov didn’t specify the missile system in his answer. “Russia is not planning to sell,” Lavrov was quoted. “Russia has been selling for a long time, has signed contracts and has completed deliveries of technology that consists of anti-aircraft systems.”

Another variation of the reply above, published by a leading Israeli newspaper, goes:

“Russia is not planning to sell,” Lavrov said when asked about the reports during a visit to Warsaw.

“Russia already sold them a long time ago. It has signed the contracts and is completing deliveries, in line with the agreed contracts, of equipment which is anti-aircraft technology.”

By May 12, a brief article from a US-based internet news outlet confirmed the arrival of the S-300 in Syria.

Why is the S-300 so important? For the simple reason of being an advanced, cutting edge weapons system. A single S-300 battery can form an umbrella covering hundreds of kilometers, easily frustrating NATO, US, or Israeli airstrikes on Damascus and beyond.

The Response

To diffuse the escalating situation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for Russia on May 14 and met President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, a resort town along the Black Sea, for a discussion about the unconfirmed S-300 sale.

Meanwhile, the fighting in Al-Qusayr, which is only 15 kilometers from the Lebanese border, continued amid the backdrop of the S-300 deliveries to Assad’s regime. The importance of the town are its roads that either the Assad regime or the rebels may use to transport weapons. It’s also a gateway to Homs and the Alawi homeland in northern Syria.

Another significant event was a lengthy televised speech delivered by Hassan Nasrallah on Saturday, May 25, that articulated Hezbollah’s goals in Syria. Speaking to crowds gathered in the Lebanese capital Beirut’s Shia enclave and parts of the Bekaa Valley, Nasrallah explicitly stated why Hezbollah is against the ‘takfiri’ Sunni militants of the FSA.

It is not only a danger to Hizbullah, or to the Shia of Lebanon, it is a danger to Lebanon and the Lebanese and the Resistance and communal coexistence in Lebanon. If these groups control areas bordering Lebanon they pose a threat to Lebanese Christians and Muslims, and when I say “Muslims” I means Sunnis, Druze, Shia and Alawites. I don’t just mean Shia, it is the Sunnis who are first and foremost in danger. The proof of this is Iraq. The same groups fighting in Syria today are an extension of a group there called “the Islamic state of Iraq”. Just ask Iraqi Sunnis how many of their Sunni clerics and Islamic party leaders this group killed; leaders who didn’t follow it. How many mosques in Anbar, Fallujah and Mosul, not merely Shia mosques and Christian churches? This organization boasts of carrying out 4 000 or 5 000 suicide attacks in Iraq. Most of these operations have targeted Iraqis of all sects, religions and ethnicities.

He further elaborated on Hezbollah’s battles in Syria, condensing the war’s implications to three broad points. The third was:

Syria is the backbone of the resistance and a support for the resistance and the resistance cannot sit idly by while its back is being broken. We are not stupid. Only someone stupid would watch the death, siege, and conspiracy closing in on him without lifting a finger. Only a stupid person would do this. A reasonable, responsible person lives up to his obligations in full. If Syria falls into the hands of America, Israel, the takfiris, and all of America’s tools in the region, the resistance will find itself under siege, and Israel will invade Lebanon, in order to impose its terms on the Lebanese people, and in order to revive its aspirations and schemes. Then, Lebanon would return to yet another Israeli era. If Syria falls then Palestine is lost and the resistance in Palestine is lost, Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem will be lost.

Less than 24 hours after his speech, rockets struck a Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood in Beirut as a reminder of the FSA’s staunch opposition to the Iranian proxy.

Russian S300 SAM

Future Uncertain

Come May 27, the EU lifted its arms embargo on Syria’s rebels. Reports later surfaced that US Senator John McCain, a vocal advocate for arming the anti-Assad factions, met with representatives of the FSA in northern Syria, having entered the country via Turkey.

It was also during the last week of May, following Assad’s S-300 proclamation, that his army launched multiple offensives to push back the rebels. Fighting in Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus intensified. The airport of Al-Qusayr was recaptured.

On May 30, Assad claimed the first S-300 had arrived during an interview with a pro-government TV station. Israeli officials and analysts, however, were skeptical.

Yet it’s difficult to pin down whether the S-300’s are already in Syria or not. From Assad’s point of view, confirming the S-300’s presence in Syria might invite more Israeli preemptive strikes. With little concrete evidence, Syria watchers are left to ponder his interview with an allegedly Hezbollah-controlled media outlet, Al-Manar. It’s often cited as the source for Assad revealing the S-300’s presence in Syria

On Al-Manar’s official site, a transcript of a May 30 interview with Assad only had a single question related to the S-300. Assad’s reply in Arabic was vague, making no definite claims.

A translation of the Q&A mentions close ties with Russia before moving on to other relevant issues. “We usually don’t announce about military issues,” Assad said. “Russia is committed with Syria to implementing these contracts.”

“All we agreed on with Russia will be accomplished,” he continued. “A part of  it was completed in the last period.”

This is all Assad mentioned regarding the S-300 as the bulk of the interview covered Hezbollah fighters in Syria’s battle fronts and possible negotiations with the FSA as well as the war’s regional implications.

A half-hearted attempt at limited peace talks proved futile. Had representatives of the Assad regime and the rebels met for Geneva 2, a sequel to a previous lackluster dialogue among the factions in June last year, the Syrian civil war might have entered an impasse.

But the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the recognized political arm of the FSA, insisted they will not be participating to protest Hezbollah’s role in the war. It’s the clearest indicator that the fighting shall grind on, taking its usual horrific turns as it crawls toward a murky end.

 The Series So Far…

A Homage To Homs

Damascus Besieged

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