Mysterious Missiles to Syria

Last week, news reports originating in Israel and reprinted in the Russian media accused Moscow of planning to sell missiles to Syria. The public commotion that followed was made worse by the cryptic nature of the story. The type of missiles involved was unclear. Was Russia going to sell ballistic medium-range Iskander-E or shoulder-launched anti-aircraft Igla missiles?

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Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, speaking in Washington during a recent visit, strongly denied that Russia was negotiating any missile sale to Syria. Ivanov suggested that the reports were deliberately released to sour Syrian President Bashar Assad's visit to Russia next week.

What kind of missile talks is Ivanov denying? Some reports indicate that a deal to sell Syria several hundred of the latest generation of Igla missiles has been already signed.

The Iskander and the Igla are both solid-fuel missiles but are very different in size and purpose. The Iskander is a modified version of the Soviet-built Oka missile, which was scrapped under the terms of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Russian military commanders have lamented the demise of the Oka, which they insisted had too short a range to be included in the INF.

The Iskander has a somewhat reduced range of 280 kilometers to stay clear of INF limitations and not to be subject to international controls that limit the export of ballistic missiles with a range over 300 kilometers. The producers of the Iskander, the Votkinsk Missile Factory, which also makes the SS-25 and SS-27 intercontinental ballistic missiles, believe the Iskander has a good export potential and are promoting the missile on the international arms market, as is the official state arms trading company, Rosoboronexport.

The Russian Air Force has massive attack capabilities, but its planes are relatively old, designed in the 1960s and mass-produced in the 1970s. Russia has some precision aerial weapons from the 1980s that can be delivered by these attack jets, yet these missiles are optically or laser guided and require good visual conditions for usage. The Iskander is believed by our General Staff to close the existing void by providing all-weather night and day precision middle-range capability.

Syria already has mid-range ballistic missiles: Soviet-made liquid-fuel Scud-Bs with a 300-kilometer range and North Korean-made Scud-C and Scud-D modifications with an extended range. However, the Scuds can miss their target by hundreds or thousands of meters, while the Iskander is officially reported to have an accuracy of several meters. If the Syrians got the Iskander, they could hit sensitive Israeli targets like the Israeli Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv with great precision.

The Syrians have a clear interest in the Iskander, while the Russian traders and producers desperately hope to make a ballistic missile export breakthrough in a market that has been dominated by the North Koreans since 1991. Ivanov stated that there were no official negotiations to sell missiles to Syria, but there are several different semiofficial entities in Russia that can negotiate and deliver almost any modern weapon while the authorities turn a blind eye, provided the buyer has the cash.

Since 1998, the Tula-based KBP arms factory has sold Syria up to a thousand updated Kornet-E guided antitank missiles. The Pentagon alleged that some of the missiles were smuggled into Iraq and used against Allied Forces. Washington imposed sanctions on KBP, but that did not stop it from continuing to export. In the late 1990s during the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, both sides got Su-27 and MiG-29 jets with mercenary pilots from Russia, as well as other modern weapons, including several hundred of the newest Igla missiles equipped with an optical image recognizer that cannot be deflected by decoys.

The Igla could be used effectively by Hezbollah fighters in south Lebanon against Israeli aircraft or in Iraq against the United States. There are currently thousands of older Russian Igla-1 and Strela missiles in the Middle East. The deployment of a weapon that cannot be deflected by decoys could make a deadly difference in the region.

The latest Russian-Israeli missile crisis has once again highlighted the issue of who (if anyone) really controls the export of sensitive technologies and weapons from Russia. It sometimes seems that exports are only controlled by the greed of arms traders and corrupt bureaucrats.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent military analyst based in Moscow.