Israel’s defense chief said Tuesday a Russian plan to supply sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to Syria was a “threat” and signaled that Israel is prepared to use force to stop the delivery.
The warning by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon ratcheted up tensions with Moscow over the planned sale of S-300 air-defense missiles to Syria. Earlier in the day, a top Russian official said his government remained committed to the deal.
Israel has been lobbying Moscow to halt the sale, fearing the missiles would upset the balance of power in the region and could slip into the hands of hostile groups, including the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, a close ally of the Syrian regime.
Israel has carried out several airstrikes in Syria in recent months that are believed to have destroyed weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah. Israel has not confirmed carrying out the attacks.
The delivery of the Russian missiles to Syria could limit the Israeli air force’s ability to act. It is not clear whether Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace in these attacks.
Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Russia to discuss the Syrian situation with President Vladimir Putin. The sides have said little about the talks, but the S-300s were believed to have been on the agenda.
“Clearly this move is a threat to us,” Yaalon told reporters Tuesday when asked about the planned Russian sale.
“At this stage I can’t say there is an escalation. The shipments have not been sent on their way yet. And I hope that they will not be sent,” he said. But “if God forbid they do reach Syria, we will know what to do.”
Since the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011, Israel repeatedly has voiced concerns that Syria’s sophisticated arsenal, including chemical weapons, could either be transferred to Hezbollah, a bitter enemy of Israel, or fall into the hands of rebels battling Syrian President Bashar Assad. The rebels include al-Qaida-affiliated groups that Israel believes could turn their attention toward Israel if they topple Assad.