JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel criticized Russia on Monday for planning to sell anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria, saying the advanced weapons could be transferred to Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Israel’s visiting defense minister in Washington that he shared Israeli concerns “about proliferation of advanced weapons that could destabilize the region,” Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said.
The go-ahead for the $300 million Yakhont missile deal was made public last week by Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who told news agency RIA that it dated back to a 2007 contract and had also met objections from the United States.
The announcement raised hackles in Israel, whose defense minister, Ehud Barak, traveled to Moscow this month to seal a military cooperation pact and urge the Russians not to supply Syria with arms that could challenge Israel’s might.
Visiting Washington on Monday, Barak voiced concern during meetings with White House officials that the Yakhont missiles could “be passed to Hezbollah, as has happened in the past, and be turned against Israel,” his office said in a statement.
Gates, who met Barak at the Pentagon, also raised the issue of weapons sales broadly with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov during their meetings in Washington last week, Morrell said.
The United States understood that Russia had a right to sell weapons, but “we wish for them to take into account the strategic ramifications of sales,” Morrell said, describing Gates’ message to Serdyukov.
Syria denies arming Hezbollah, which also enjoys Iranian backing. Hezbollah surprised Israel by hitting one of its naval vessels with a cruise missile during the 2006 Lebanon war.
Israel and Syria have exchanged peace overtures in recent years but remain divided over core demands regarding the future of the occupied Golan Heights and the Damascus-Tehran alliance.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Israel Hayom newspaper: “This (Yakhont sale) complicates the situation. It does not contribute to stability and it does not create peace in the region. We will convey to Russia our position.”
State-run RIA on Friday quoted Serdyukov as saying the United States feared the Yakhonts could end up in the hands of “terrorists” — an apparent reference to Hezbollah.
Serdyukov called such concerns “fruitless,” RIA said.
Lieberman said that Barak, on his Moscow visit, had “dealt with the (Yakhont) issue, but things didn’t work out.”
Russia, which is building up a fleet of Israeli-made drones, earlier pleased Israel by promising not to deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran while new U.N. sanctions over its nuclear program are in place.
Writing by Dan Williams and Amie Ferris-Rotman; additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Tim Pearce and Eric Walsh