Tuesday, September 26, the Syrian chief of staff General Ali Habib met with his Russian counterpart General Yuri Baluyevsky in Moscow. Officially, they were said to have “discussed weapons trade as well as opportunities for Syrian military personnel to be trained in Russian Defense Ministry academies.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources reveal that the two generals carried out a far weightier transaction; they signed a contract for the sale of Russia’s sophisticated Iskander SS-26 surface missile to Syria.
Three days later, Thursday, Habib was taken round the KB Mashinostroeniya KBM factory in Tula that produces the Strelets air defense system and the Iskander-Elvira semi-strategic missile complex. The Syrian general saw for himself the new war machine his government was about to receive.
For a speedy delivery in the first quarter of 2006, the Syrians paid cash.
The value of the transaction is unknown but it certainly runs into hundreds of million dollars, given that Syria has purchased 26 of the most advanced missile of its kind in use anywhere in the world. When Moscow announced last January that the Red Army’s missile corps would be equipped with the new generation of air defense missile systems, it was referring to the selfsame Iskander SS-26 sold now to Syria.
The United States and NATO have code-named the Iskander SS-26 “Stone.” The have nothing in their missile arsenal to match its unique attributes.
With a 400-km range and a 480-kilo warhead composed of 54 elements, the missile hits a target within a 20-meter radius. Two missiles with a range of 280km are mounted on each launch pad. The system can be used against small and large targets alike, easily overcoming air defenses. It is almost impossible for existing electronic weapons systems to prevent the Iskander’s launch because of its speed and high flexibility. Its targets are found in mid-flight by satellites, accompanying airplanes, conventional intelligence centers or a lone soldier directing artillery fire. Targets may also be found by feeding photos into the missile’s computer by means of a scanner.
The self-direction device functions even in fog, darkness or storms. The name Iskander is Alexander (the Great) in the Turkoman language. Weighing 3,800 kilos it is operated by a crew of three. It comes in two versions: the 500-kilo version provided the Russian Army and the 280-kilo missile sold to Syria.
So impressive is the Russian “Stone”, that in 2004, the Americans sought to include it in various treaties signed with Russia for precluding the manufacture and sale of certain weapons. Moscow balked. A Western missile expert says: “Even a small quantity of these missiles is capable of radically changing the balance of strength in local conflicts.” It is a strategic weapon for countries with a small area like Syria.
Moscow goes back on a promise
Nine months ago, on January 12, 2005, Moscow “leaked” the news of a big new arms deal with Syria that included the following missiles: the Iskander SS-26, SA-10 Grumble ground-to-air, and SA-18 Grouse (Igla 9K38) shoulder-launched anti-air missiles capable of hitting objects at an altitude of 3,600 meters and range of 5,200 meters.
Israeli raised the ceiling over this transaction as radically shifting the balance of strength between the Jewish state and Syria. Washington embarked on a quiet diplomatic dialogue to deter Damascus from acquiring the new hardware, maintaining it posed a threat to the US army in Iraq.
After weeks of palaver and pressure, president Vladimir Putin and defense minister Sergei Ivanov relented and promised Washington and Jerusalem to withhold the Iskander SS-26 from Syria. The other items would have their aggressive options “neutered” and rendered fit for defensive use alone.
This week, word that the transaction was on again brought the director of Israel’s national security council, Maj-Gen. (Res.) Giora Eiland hurrying to Moscow to remind the Russians of Putin’s pledge to Ariel Sharon when he visited Israel in May to refrain from selling the Iskander to Syria.
The Israeli general arrived Tuesday, September 26 – only to learn from the Russian chief of staff General Baluyevsky that he was too late. The transaction had been signed.
It is now clear that Putin’s promise to the Americans and Israelis to withhold the missile’s sale was no more than a time-winning ploy until an opportunity presented itself to go through with the transaction.