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Missile madness

Russian arms for Syria.

Russian arms for Syria.

NEW YORK — Russia has sent sophisticated anti-ship missiles to Syria, US media report.

The New York Times quotes unnamed US officials as saying the missiles could be used to counter any potential future foreign military intervention in Syria.

Without confirming details, Russia’s foreign minister said Russian supplies did not break any international rules.

It comes amid growing alarm that chemical weapons may be being used in Syria, something US President Barack Obama has said would be “a red line”.

Meanwhile efforts continue to arrange an international conference on Syria.

The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met Lavrov in Sochi today to discuss the plans for the conference, which would aim to bring together the Syrian opposition and members of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

At a news briefing, Ban said it was important to “not lose momentum” on the drive towards holding a peace conference and dates for it were being “actively discussed”.

No external intervention

Lavrov said a resolution could only be found through “an inclusive all-Syrian dialogue with participation of all Syrian forces, without any external intervention, as soon as possible”.

Also today, the UN’s refugee agency said more than 1.5m Syrians were now registered as refugees, with the true figure likely to be much higher.

“Refugees tell us the increased fighting and changing of control of towns and villages, in particular in conflict areas, results in more and more civilians deciding to leave,” UNHCR said in a statement.

Russia is one of Syria’s few remaining allies and its major arms suppliers. Over the years, in contracts worth billions of dollars, it has sold thousands of tanks, artillery units, aircraft, helicopters and defence systems to Damascus.

According to the New York Times report, a recent Russian shipment to Syria included an advanced form of the Yakhont, a 6.7m-long missile with a range of 290 kilometres and carrying either a high-explosive or armour-piercing warhead.

The Yakhont is a radar-guided, supersonic anti-shipping missile designed for coastal defence. Depending upon its trajectory it has a range of between 120 and 300 km (75-186 miles).

US reports stress the ability this gives to the Assad government to push hostile naval forces away from Syria’s shores.

But the real significance of these reports, if true, is twofold. Firstly they show Russia’s continuing desire to ensure that there be no Western intervention in Syria along the lines of what happened in Libya. Russian naval deployments in the Mediterranean back up this view.

But equally the real concern about the Yakhont may be their potential transfer to Syria’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Israel has made it clear that a transfer of the Yakhont represents a red line that could prompt more air strikes against Syrian arms depots.

The initial order – for 72 missiles along with launcher and support vehicles – was placed in 2007 and the first deliveries received in early 2011, said the paper. It quotes two unnamed senior US defence officials as saying the most recent shipments had more advanced radar guidance systems, enabling it to evade a ship’s defences. (BBC)

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