US airs alarm over Russian plan to arm Assad regime with new air-defense missile systems

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Tracked launcher of the Russian S-300 (SA-10 Grumble) family anti-aircraft missile system. (Shutterstock photo)
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A Russian army's S-300 anti-aircraft missile system launcher rolls in central St. Petersburg, on April 28, 2014, during a Victory Day parade rehearsal. (File/ AFP)
Updated 25 September 2018
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US airs alarm over Russian plan to arm Assad regime with new air-defense missile systems

  • President Vladimir Putin has ordered additional security measures after a Syrian Soviet-era S-200 air defence missile shot down a Russian military plane by mistake
  • Russia will transfer the modern S-300 air defence system to the Syrian armed forces within two weeks

MOSCOW/JEDDAH:  Russia is to supply the Assad regime with sophisticated S-300 air-defense missile systems in what the US described on Monday as a “significant escalation” of the Syrian conflict.

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said he would raise the matter this week with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the UN General Assembly in New York. 

The move follows a “friendly fire” incident last week when Syrian forces accidentally shot down a Russian military reconnaissance aircraft and killed all 15 people on board. Russia said Israeli fighter jets had pushed the plane into Syria’s line of fire.

The S-300 missile defense systems will be delivered to Damascus within two weeks, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Monday. 

He said that President Vladimir Putin ordered additional security measures after a Syrian Soviet-era S-200 missile shot down the Russian military plane by mistake, killing 15, in an incident last Monday that Moscow blames on Israel.

“This has pushed us to adopt adequate response measures directed at boosting the security of Russian troops” in Syria, Shoigu said in a televised statement.

“(Russia will) transfer the modern S-300 air defense system to the Syrian armed forces within two weeks.”

Earlier in the war, Russia suspended a supply of S-300s. “The situation has changed, and it’s not our fault,” Shoigu said. 

Russia will also equip Syrian air defenses with a new automated control system to enhance its efficiency and help identify Russian aircraft, Shoigu said. 

The Russian military will start using electronic countermeasures to jam any aircraft that try to launch attacks off Syria’s coast.“We are convinced that these measures will calm down some hotheads and keep them from careless actions that pose a threat to our troops,” he said.

The S-300 missile system, originally developed by the Soviet military but since modernized and available in several versions with different capabilities, fires missiles from trucks and is designed to shoot down military aircraft and short and medium-range ballistic missiles.

A surface-to-air missile launched by an S-300 anti-aircraft system at Russia's Astrakhan region in 2017. Shutterstock photo) 

'Iran is to blame'

“We think introducing the S-300s to the Syrian government would be a significant escalation by the Russians ... and something that we hope, if these press reports are accurate, they would reconsider,” US National Security Adviser John Bolton said.

“There shouldn’t be any misunderstanding here. The party responsible for the attacks in Syria and Lebanon and really the party responsible for the shooting down of the Russian plane is Iran.”

Bolton warned that if the Syrian government used chemical weapons again, the US response would be significant.

“If in fact they make the mistake of using chemical weapons again, the retaliation would be much stronger than before and would have the intended effect of creating structures of deterrence that they never do it again,” he said.

Bolton said the US was doing everything it could to ensure Syria did not use chemical weapons and had pressed Russia about the issue as well. Bolton said a political process was needed but Russia supplying the missile system made that difficult. 

He said US troops would remain in Syria as long as Iran was involved.

“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.”

 

Russians not convinced

Moscow says Israeli F-16 planes which struck Latakia in western Syria on Sept. 17 later used the landing Russian Il-20 surveillance plane as “cover,” which resulted in the larger Il-20 being hit by a Syrian missile.

The Russian military has said that Israel’s air force informed its command in Syria via the established de-confliction hotline, but only one minute before the air strikes — and gave the wrong target location.

Because of this, Moscow claims that the Russian airforce could not keep its plane safe.

Israel regularly carries out strikes in Syria against Assad’s government, its Lebanese ally Hezbollah and Iranian targets. An Israeli military delegation traveled to Moscow last week to share information about the incident.

An Israeli official said the information showed that the Russian plane was shot down because Syrian batteries had “fired recklessly, irresponsibly and unprofessionally, long after our planes were no longer there.”

He said the warning time before the strike was “much longer than one minute.”

Russia has apparently not found this convincing.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Monday said the incident was caused by “premeditated” actions by Israeli pilots, warning that this will harm relations between the two countries.

“According to information of our military experts, the reason (behind the downing) were premeditated actions by Israeli pilots which certainly cannot but harm our relations,” Peskov told journalists.

The incident was the deadliest case of friendly fire between Syria and its key backer Russia since Moscow’s 2015 military intervention, which turned the war in Assad’s favor.

Peskov said the new measures were only to boost the security of its troops in Syria.

(With AFP)


Egypt votes on extending El-Sisi’s rule, country awaits result

Updated 20 April 2019
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Egypt votes on extending El-Sisi’s rule, country awaits result

  • El-Sisi cast his ballot at a polling station in the eastern suburb of Heliopolis in the Egyptian capital
  • Supporters argue that El-Sisi has stabilized Egypt and needs more time to complete crucial economic reforms.

CAIRO: Egyptians were voting on Saturday in a referendum that aims to cement the rule of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the former coup leader who presents himself as a rock of stability in a turbulent region.

Voters were being asked to back amendments to the constitution to allow El-Sisi, 64, to run for another six-year term while boosting his control over the judiciary and giving the military even greater influence in political life.

At a polling station in Manyal, a Cairo suburb overlooking the Nile, Mohamed Abdel Salam, 45, told AFP he was voting enthusiastically in support of the changes.

"I don't care about the presidential terms," he said.

"Sisi could stay forever as long as he's doing his job... and he has already done a lot"

The three-day referendum bucks the trend of North Africa's renewed uprisings, in which mass pro-democracy protests this month swept away veteran presidents in Algeria and Sudan.

Sisi himself was among the first to vote when polls opened, casting his ballot in the upmarket Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.

In Shubra, a working-class neighbourhood of the capital, dozens of voters, mostly women carrying their children, queued outside a polling station in the local high school.

In Cairo, troops and police were deployed in numbers although the interior ministry declined to give any nationwide figures.

Egypt is still battling a hardened Islamic insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula that has seen attacks in Cairo and other cities.

Sisi has argued that he needs longer to complete the job of restoring security and stability after the turmoil that followed the overthrow of veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring of 2011.

Out on the streets, Sisi's supporters waved flags bearing their campaign motto: "Do the Right" thing, as they pressed passers-by to turn out and vote 'Yes'.

The Egyptian leader won his first term as president in 2014, a year after he led the army in overthrowing elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi following mass protests against his single turbulent year in power.

Standing virtually unopposed after the disqualification or withdrawal of all realistic challengers, he was re-elected in March 2018 with more than 97 percent.

Both elections drew heavy criticism from human rights groups as they were accompanied by swingeing crackdowns on dissent -- both Islamist and secular.

Human Rights Watch also took issue with the referendum on extending Sisi's rule, saying the "constitutional amendments" would "entrench repression".

In a statement Saturday, the New York-based watchdog criticised the "grossly unfree, rights-abusive environment" of the vote.

For the past few weeks, Egypt's streets have been awash with banners and billboards urging citizens to vote for Sisi, while popular folk singers have exhorted voters to go to the polls.

Pro-Sisi campaign volunteers handed out boxed meals at four different polling stations in Cairo to voters after they had cast their ballots, AFP reporters said.

A parliamentarian greeted voters and volunteers gave out vouchers for the meals in the Shubra district.

In Manyal, a DJ blared loud patriotic songs extolling the virtues of Egypt under Sisi's leadership, including a new song by iconic Lebanese diva Nancy Ajram dedicated to Egypt and called "Ragel ibn Ragel" (What a fine man).

But not everyone is upbeat about the changes.

Sporting casual attire, a voter in his mid-30s told AFP in Cairo: "We are all staff in the same company and we were instructed by management to go vote.

"I want to say 'No'... on extending the presidential terms and the amendments related to the judiciary," he said declining to give his name for fear of repercussions.

He pointed to his bosses nearby who were making sure employees were voting.

"Even if I say 'No', they (the authorities) are still going to do what they want in the end," he added despondently.

Earlier in the week, parliament overwhelmingly endorsed the consitutional changes, which also include the creation of a second parliamentary chamber and a quota ensuring at least 25 percent of lawmakers are women.

Think tank the Soufan Center said the main effect of the referendum would be to "solidify Sisi's grip on the Egyptian political regime" in a country that "has become even more autocratic than it was under Mubarak".