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Kerry hopes Russia won’t sell missiles to Syria

ROME – Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday the transfer of advanced missile defense systems from Russia to Syria would be a “destabilizing” factor for Israel’s security.

Kerry said the U.S. has expressed concerns about what such defensive systems in Syria would mean for Israel’s security. He wouldn’t address what the missiles might mean for Syria’s civil war.

He spoke to reporters in Rome after the Wall Street Journal reported that Russia was preparing to sell the weapons to President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Coming just days after Kerry hailed what he described as a U.S.-Russia breakthrough on Syria, the report suggested Russia may already be angling to further strengthen the Assad regime two years into a war that has killed more than 70,000 people.

“We have previously stated that the missiles are potentially destabilizing with respect to the state of Israel,” Kerry said.

“We have made it crystal clear that we prefer that Russia would not supply them assistance,” Kerry told reporters alongside new Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino. “That is on record. That hasn’t changed.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, said, “We have consistently called on Russia to cut off the Assad regime’s supply of weapons,” including air defense systems that destabilize the region.

“The provision of additional weapons to the regime will not hasten a political solution,” Carney said.

Israeli officials said they have asked Russia to cancel the imminent sale to the Assad regime of advanced ground-to-air missile systems.

Such weapons would enhance the Syrian government’s defensive ability and make it even harder for the U.S. and other governments to consider even the possibility of trying to enforce a no-fly zone in the country or otherwise intervening militarily.

Russia rarely comments publicly on arms sales or transfers, and there has been no official word on the deal in Moscow.

Even before Syria’s 2011 uprising, the Israelis warned about a sale of S-300 batteries – which can target manned planes, drones and incoming missiles. Russia had held off on the deal under persistent U.S. and Israeli pressure.

The S-300 would be a state-of-the-art upgrade for Syria’s aging Soviet-supplied defense system, which was easily circumvented in 2007 when Israeli jets bombed a suspected nuclear reactor site along the Euphrates River in northeast Syria.

And it would only add to reservations in the United States and other Western countries about a more forceful military intervention to end the war. With the advanced aircraft interception technology, Syria would be able to present a far more robust defense than Libya offered two years ago.

The Wall Street Journal put the deal at $900 million for a package of four batteries, six launchers and 144 operational missiles.

The missiles have a range of 125 miles, it reported, citing the Israeli-provided information, adding the materiel would start arriving during the next three months.

Russia remains the Syrian government’s most powerful international ally.