WASHINGTON — The Obama administration denounced Russia on Friday for providing Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime with anti-ship missiles, saying the weapons would only worsen a war that Washington and Moscow have been promising to work together on stopping.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, criticized what he called an “unfortunate decision that will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering.” He spoke after the New York Times reported that Russia recently delivered an advanced version of Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria.
“It’s ill-timed and very unfortunate,” Dempsey said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also urged Russia to rethink its military aid, saying that the U.S. and Russia both wanted to stabilize Syria after more than two years of civil war but that the Kremlin’s military support makes the situation even more dangerous.
“What we don’t want to see happen, the Russians don’t want to see happen, is for Syria to erupt to the point where we may well find a regional war in the Middle East,” Hagel said.
“So we continue to work with the Russians on their interests and everything we can do to convince the powers that are involved in the region to be careful with escalation of military options and equipment,” he said, adding that the U.S. was planning for every military contingency.
Dempsey’s comments, in particular, seemed to contradict that of the State Department, where spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier Friday that the U.S. was aware of no “new shipments” of the weapons.
For the Obama administration, the anti-ship missiles are the second such worrying report in as many weeks at a time when Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov say they are coordinating closely to try to get Syria’s government and rebels into the start of a peace negotiation. They are hoping the talks begin next month in Geneva.
Almost immediately after last week’s announcement by Kerry and Lavrov of a new peace push, Israeli officials warned that Moscow was preparing to give Assad state-of-the-art ground-to-air missile systems in the coming months.
Both sets of missiles would only add to the administration’s reservations as it evaluates a range of options, including military ones, to break the stalemate in Syria’s civil war and respond to evidence that Assad’s forces used small amounts of chemical weapons in two attacks in March. Obama previously declared chemical weapons use his “red line” for a more forceful American intervention, though Kerry and other U.S. officials have since suggested that no such step would be taken while the new peace push still has hope.
The cruise missiles and the new surface-to-air batteries would significantly upgrade the Assad regime’s capacity to target manned planes, drones and incoming missiles after its systems were easily circumvented in 2007 when Israeli jets bombed a suspected nuclear reactor site along the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria.
Apparently successful Israeli strikes in recent weeks on weapons convoys to Hezbollah show the Syrian defenses are still far from impregnable, but the new weaponry would add further considerations as the United States consider even the possibility of trying to enforce a no-fly zone in the country or otherwise intervening militarily.
Dempsey also warned specifically about the surface-to-air missiles, saying they provide Syria with defenses at higher altitude and longer range, and with better tracking capability.
“It pushes the standoff distance a little more, increases risk, but not impossible to overcome,” he told reporters. “What I really worry about is that Assad will decide that since he’s got these systems, he’s somehow safer and more prone to a miscalculation.”