* Moscow to send arms worth $500 million this year
* Russia faces pressure over arms sales to Syria
* Syria's air defences stronger than Libya's were
By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW, June 26 Russia is expected to deliver
air defence systems, reconditioned helicopters and fighter jets
to Syria this year worth nearly half a billion dollars despite
international pressure to halt arms sales to Damascus, a defence
think-tank said on Tuesday.
The report, by CAST, a Moscow-based think tank, is likely to
fuel concerns that Russia is supplying President Bashar al-Assad
with arms that are being used against protesters taking part in
an uprising against him and air defence systems that could be
deployed in the event of international military intervention.
Obtained by Reuters before publication, the report shows a
series of contracts that were signed between 2005 and 2007 are
at the heart of Russia's arms sales to Syria, which has been
rocked by a vicious cycle of violence for the last 16 months.
The deals were signed long before the start of the rebellion
in Syria and after Moscow wrote off some 70 percent of Syria's
$13.4 billion debt to Russia and the former Soviet Union, a
stumbling block that froze Moscow's arms cooperation with
Damascus throughout the 1990s.
Russia is expected to start delivering 12 top-of-the-line
MiG-29 fighter jets this year and to deliver a batch of repaired
Mi-25 attack helicopters, the report said.
It said air defence systems expected to be delivered to
Syria this year included the Buk-M2E, which Moscow began
delivering in 2010, and Pantsir-S1 armoured rocket complexes,
which are designed to help protect troops against air attacks.
President Vladimir Putin has said the arms that Russia
delivers cannot be used in civil conflicts and Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov has said the supplies are defensive weapons sold
in contracts signed long ago.
But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that
Russian statements that the weapons are unrelated to the
violence inside the country are "patently untrue".
The capabilities of Syria's air defence systems, which are
almost completely supplied by Russian manufacturers, are in
focus following its shooting down of a Turkish jet last week, an
act that increased regional tensions.
The $600 million contract for the MiG-29s includes an option
for 12 more to be delivered. At least one prototype was
completed by the end of last year.
"According to information we have obtained, the delivery of
the first part (and perhaps all 12 airplanes) to Syria is
expected at the end of 2012," the report said.
The jets are expected to be equipped with air-to-air and
air-to-surface rockets, giving them the capability to flout any
"no fly zone" over Syria.
France has said a no fly zone is being considered as part of
international efforts to end the crisis in Syria. A no fly zone
was also imposed over Libya during the conflict there last year.
"Syria's air defence systems are better than Libya's," said
Ruslan Aliyev, one of the authors of the report, which will be
published in the group's Moscow Defence Brief later this year.
"On the one hand, Syria has tough, solid air defence systems
of many different kinds, but what condition they are in and
whether Syria is properly trained to use them is a different
question ... the only real way of knowing what shape it's in is
to test it," he told Reuters by phone.
Moscow is also obliged to fulfil a contract for 36 of the
Pantsir-S1 armoured rocket complexes. Twelve have already been
delivered and the contract is expected to be fulfilled by 2013.
CHANGE OF STANCE?
The report did not mention accusations - made by a Syrian
defence official who defected as well as by rebels - that
deliveries of Russian small arms have increased since the
uprising against Assad's 14-year rule began..
The report from CAST, which maintains good relations with
Russia's arms industry, also made no mention of contracts
between Moscow and Damascus for BMP-2 vehicles, which amateur
videos show operating in Homs and other cities during army
Russia, a permanent member of the United Nations Security
Council with the power of veto, has been one of Assad's
staunchest allies and has shielded Syria from harsher
But the report suggested Russia would be amenable to
freezing arms sales if it was convinced it was in its interests
to end its relationship with Assad.
"Arms cooperation with Syria does not carry so much
importance for Russia, neither on a commercial nor a defence
relationship," it said.
"If there is a break in future deliveries to Syria, it is
probable that (state arms dealer) Rosoboronexport would not have
any difficulty in giving the arms ordered by the Syrians ... to
a third country."
Russia has already frozen the delivery of an S-300 missile
system as well as Iskander missiles, the report said, following
concerns expressed by Israel that the systems could end up in
the hands of the Iranian-backed Islamist movement Hezbollah.
A ship reportedly left Russia on Sunday carrying the
delivery of Mi-25 helicopters after a failed attempt earlier
this month. The delivery was initially stopped after its insurer
withdrew its policy last week.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)