* 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 (Reuters) - 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.
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 shelling.
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 international sanctions.
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)