JERUSALEM – Israel is trying to stop sale of advanced Russian missiles to Syria, officials said Wednesday, fearing the missiles might end up in the hands of Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas (search) and aimed at Israeli targets.
The issue has clouded Israel-Russia relations, which had been steadily improving since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Israel and Syria are arch-enemies, and Israel charges that Syria supplies and to some extent controls Hezbollah, which fought an 18-year guerrilla war against Israeli forces in south
Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia and Syria signed a deal a few days ago for sale of advanced Igla SA-18 anti-aircraft missiles (search), which experts say could endanger the frequent Israeli overflights of Lebanon and flights on the Israeli side of the border.
Also, the Moscow daily Kommersant reported that Syria is also interested in buying 18 Iskander-E guided missile systems (search), and Russia has agreed.
The ground-to-ground missiles, mounted on truck launchers, can destroy targets up to 280 kilometers (175 miles) away and would put most of Israel's territory, including the Dimona nuclear center in the Negev desert, in jeopardy, Kommersant said in the unsourced report.
Israeli defense officials said the report about a Russian plan to supply Syria with Iskander-E missiles was untrue.
Analysts said the United States might be concerned that Iraqi insurgents might get their hands on Syria's Russian anti-aircraft missiles, threatening U.S. warplanes in Iraq.
Officials said Israel is considering several options to defuse the issue, including asking for U.S. involvement.
David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said, "The reports in this regard are very disturbing and, as in other cases with strategic implications, we conduct an ongoing dialogue with the administration."
But officials said Israel could decide to allow the deal to go through rather than risk its bilateral relations with Russia, which it has been working to improve since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is of Russian descent, has visited Moscow three times since taking office in 2001. He repeatedly has asked President Vladimir Putin to act against what Israel contends is a covert Iranian nuclear arms program and to pressure Syria to rein in its Lebanese and Palestinian proxies.
A deputy Russian foreign minister is in the region to discuss the missile issue, Israeli officials said on condition of anonymity.
Asked about the deal, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said: "We have close contacts with the Russians. We had consultations over the past few days, and we hope to reach the necessary agreement."
The press service of Russia's main arms export company, Rosoboronexport, said it had no information that Russia was planning such a sale. No one was immediately available for comment at the Russian Foreign Ministry.
The Igla SA-18s are among the most sophisticated shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles. Because of their simplicity and light weight, they also are an ideal weapon for militants, military analysts said.
"We have enough problems on the ground with Syria and we don't need more problems from the sky," Vice Premier Shimon Peres said.
Syrian President Bashar Assad is due to visit Russia Jan. 24-28.
Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir denied a report by Kommersant that Israel had recalled its ambassador in response to the deal. The ambassador is in Israel but was to return to Moscow later Wednesday or Thursday, Meir said.
Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg said the report about the anti-aircraft missiles came as a surprise because the Syrians have not had money to buy Russian weapons for several years.
"If this report is true, it is very problematic and will pose a challenge to Israeli military planners," Steinberg said.
Paul Beaver, a London-based defense analyst, said Russia has been upgrading Syrian military equipment for years but has not sold the Arab country new arms since 1990.
Beaver described the SA-18 as the missile that evolved from the Russian shoulder-held SAM-7, which was widely used during the Vietnam War. The SA-18 gives the user more time to fire the missile, has a greater range and can target any part of an aircraft, not just the heat-emitting section.
The SA-18 also can cut through many Western defenses. It is resistant to most flares, are used by Western armies to deflect anti-aircraft missiles. The sophisticated missiles cost about $250,000 each, Beaver said.