HAIFA, Israel – Russia continues to send mixed signals over its stance in support of the Syrian regime, with President Vladimir Putin hinting that President Bashar al-Assad’s downfall is likely even as unconfirmed reports indicate Russia is shipping high-tech missiles to the embattled strongman.
The abstention of Russia in Thursday’s UN vote condemning Syria, Iran and North Korea for widespread and systematic human rights abuses, is juxtaposed by Putin’s comments earlier in the day that, “We are not preoccupied that much with the fate of the Assad regime; we realize what’s going on there.”
Unconfirmed reports suggesting that Moscow may have sent some 24 Iskander cruise missiles to bolster Syrian forces, prompting neighboring countries such as Israel, Turkey and Jordan, whose respective militaries have for some time been on a heightened state of alert due to the instability in Syria, to further increase their vigilance and monitoring of events in the region.
Reports that the Iskander missiles – also known as SS26-Stone missiles –might have been dispatched from Russia to Syria first surfaced on Dec. 9. Sources believe the weapons passed through the port of Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and have deployed at dual points: 12 facing Turkey on Syria’s northeast border, and 12 facing Jordan and Israel on Syria’s southern border. Just as worrisome for those who fear an escalation could spill over beyond Syria’s borders is the fact that a number of other vessels are reportedly on their way to Tartus.
“They (the Russian vessels) are heading to the Syrian coast to assist in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens. Preparations for the deployment were carried out in a hurry and were heavily classified,” Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
Other reports from the region have suggested however that the ships bound for Tartus are not the type normally used for evacuation purposes and include two amphibious assault vessels. And on Wednesday evening, in what may be a related move, Vice Admiral Hossein Azad of the Iranian navy told local media that a Russian naval vessel had arrived at the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
Marshal Shaposhnikov, a Russian Udaloy-class destroyer, has docked at this port with the aim of strengthening military ties between Iran and Russia”, the vice admiral said. Both Iran and Russia have been principal supporters of President Assad’s embattled regime.
Were the Iskander missiles to have entered Syrian civil war in which has claimed at least 40,000 lives, it would potentially take the conflict to a new and even more dangerous level. The weapons have a range of up to 280 miles, can carry a massive warhead weighing up to half a ton, and are able to fly at a speed of up to 1.3 miles per second, making interception particularly difficult. There has for some time been serious concern among Syria’s neighbors that Assad may attempt to drag the whole region into the war if he feels his own battle is lost.
When combined with growing fears that Iranian-backed Syria and its allied militia Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, who on Thursday officially confirmed to the UN they are fighting alongside Assad’s troops in Syria – may be preparing to use chemical weapons, the stakes are even deadlier.
The search for Assad’s stockpile of chemicals has been the central focal point of the attentions of various foreign agencies including the CIA, Mossad, and other western security services since the summer, all desperate to ensure that such weapons of mass destruction don’t fall into the hands of either Hezbollah, Iran, or the plethora of Islamist jihadi groups who have formed the disparate opposition to Assad.
Earlier this week both Israel and Jordan have moved to prepare for the possibility of a spread of the Syrian conflict. Maj. Gen Amir Eshel of the Israeli Air Force told reporters that Hezbollah already has a range of unmanned drones at their disposal.
Earlier this week a massive explosion in southern Lebanon rocked a suspected Hezbollah storage depot.
“It is no secret that Hezbollah is preparing weapon stockpiles in Lebanon, contradicting UN resolutions,” Eshol said. “Those who sleep with rockets and amass large stockpiles of weapons…are in a very unsafe place.”
On Wednesday, the Jordanian military issued gas masks. Jordan has taken in a large number of Syrian refugees and hosts U.S. troops on its soil, together with troops from both Poland and the Czech Republic.
Turkey has also granted safe haven to many fleeing Syrian refugees. The spark that ignited the perceived escalation of weaponry was NATO’s decision to grant Turkey’s request for Patriot missiles to be stationed on its eastern border following the killing of a number of its civilians as a result of Syrian cross-border shelling. Turkey argued that the Patriot missiles were needed to protect against any further attacks on its soil by Syria, the country that only three years ago had declared Turkey and Iran as its new best friends and formed a three-cornered alliance.
The Patriots, together with their 400 U.S. troops who now operate the system on the Turkey-Syria border, also appear to consider Russia a threat to its interests in the region, adding further fuel to rumors that Moscow might have introduced new armaments into the conflict as a counter-measure to the NATO deployment.
“We have been clear on how Russia can play a more constructive role in this conflict,” a U.S. State Department official told FoxNews.com.
Source: Fox News