A senior Israeli defense official warned on Tuesday that Russia’s plan to send sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons systems to Syria’s President Bashar Assad was a “threat” and signaled Israel could take some form of unspecified action in response.
Israel has launched airstrikes inside Syria that it says were designed to stop weapons shipments getting to the Assad-allied Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.
Russia on Tuesday reiterated its intention to go ahead with the arms deal. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said it would “restrain some hotheads from escalating the conflict to the international scale," according to Russia Today.
John McCain crossed into Syria from Turkey to meet with Salim Idris, the general commander of the Free Syrian Army. McCain wants the U.S. to support the Free Syrian Army with arms and a no-fly zone. NBC's Richard Engel reports and NBC's David Gregory discusses the visit.
His comments came after the European Union agreed to lift an arms embargo that prevented weapons from being sent to the rebels fighting Assad’s forces.
French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said France could potentially send arms to the opposition before the embargo expires on Aug. 1, but said it had no immediate plans to do so, Reuters reported.
The U.K.’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement that the lifting of the embargo was “important … to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so.”
There is concern in Israel that weapons sent to the rebels could fall into the hands of Islamist factions within their ranks, who could in turn use the arms against Israel.
Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon told reporters that the looming shipment of Russian anti-aircraft S300 missiles was “a threat,” according to reports in the Haaretz newspaper and elsewhere.
“The shipments haven’t set out yet and I hope they won’t. If they do arrive in Syria, God forbid, we’ll know what to do,” he said.
Haaretz noted that Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said last week that the Russian shipment “is on its way.”
A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.
Ryabkov defended the deal with Syria. “Those systems by definition cannot be used by militant groups on the battlefield,” he said, according to Russia Today. “We consider this delivery a factor of stabilization. We believe that moves like this one to a great degree restrain some hotheads from escalating the conflict to the international scale, from involving external forces.”
Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of Middle East politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, told BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday that Britain was looking to fill the “leadership vacuum” that exists because of U.S. reluctance to become more directly involved in the civil war in Syria.
“There is no military solution to the conflict. Even if the opposition is armed, I doubt very much whether they would have the capacity to deliver a decisive blow against Assad and Hezbollah and Iran,” he told the station.
“It’s not just Assad now. You have Hezbollah, one of the most potent military organizations in the Middle East, and Iran. And that’s why the Russians and the Americans have intensified their diplomacy,” he added.
“They are trying to basically prevent the escalation of the Syrian conflict not only into neighboring countries, but also into a region-wide conflict. This is what we’re talking about today: Is the fire in Syria devouring and consuming other countries in the region?”
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This story was originally published on Tue May 28, 2013 10:29 AM EDT