Russia to ship missiles to Syria after EU ends arms embargo on rebels

Escalations continued on all sides in Syria’s civil war except, curiously, among the Syrians.  The EU decided not to renew the embargo on arms sales to Syrian rebels, which prompted the Russians to pledge delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, which prompted Israel to implicitly warn that they would make great targets for their air force.  In the middle of all this, John McCain got a photo op with a Syrian opposition that’s being dominated by radical Islamist militias, including an al-Qaeda affiliate that forms the core of their military operations.

In other words, it’s a mess, but let’s start with the embargo’s end, announced last night:

The European Union plans to end its embargo on arming the Syrian opposition, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday.

The Associated Press reports: “Hague insisted that Britain had ‘no immediate plans to send arms to Syria. It gives us flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate.’ ”

The EU will continue its sanctions against Bashar Assad’s government, which had been set to expire on June 1, Hague said.

Russia answered almost immediately, explaining that they want to keep “hotheads” from interfering in the Syrian civil war:

Russia says it will go ahead with deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, and that the arms will help deter foreign intervention.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the missiles were a “stabilising factor” that could dissuade “some hotheads” from entering the conflict.

Russia also criticised a decision by the EU not to renew an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition.

The missiles are clearly intended to keep NATO from imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, which would rob Assad of a vital means to fight the rebels.  However, it also means that Israel can’t react to threats as easily, either, including the transfers of arms to Hezbollah it has recently targeted in air raids across the border.  Israel responded with a veiled threat to destroy Russia’s missiles before Syria can use them:

The BBC’s Jim Muir in Beirut says the Russian statement could be seen as an escalation. He says there had been reports that Moscow was holding back on delivering the arms, in exchange for an Israeli commitment not to carry out further air raids over Syria.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said the Russian missile systems had not yet left Russia.

“I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do,” he said.

What might help the situation?  Perhaps a crescendo of responsible voices demanding that everyone take two or three steps back.  Instead, McCain decided to pay a visit to the rebellion yesterday in an unannounced mission that makes it pretty clear which side McCain favors:

Sen. John McCain Monday became the highest-ranking U.S. official to enter Syria since the bloody civil war there began more than two years ago, The Daily Beast has learned.

McCain, one of the fiercest critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy, made the unannounced visit across the Turkey-Syria border with Gen. Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. He stayed in the country for several hours before returning to Turkey. Both in Syria and Turkey, McCain and Idris met with assembled leaders of Free Syrian Army units that traveled from around the country to see the U.S. senator. Inside those meetings, rebel leaders called on the United States to step up its support to the Syrian armed opposition and provide them with heavy weapons, a no-fly zone, and airstrikes on the Syrian regime and the forces of Hezbollah, which is increasingly active in Syria.

On the other hand, perhaps McCain was there to talk them into the Geneva peace conference, which Assad’s regime will attend.  Fat chance:

“What we want from the U.S. government is to take the decision to support the Syrian revolution with weapons and ammunition, anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft weapons,” Idris said. “Of course we want a no-fly zone and we ask for strategic strikes against Hezbollah both inside Lebanon and inside Syria.”

There’s no assurance the Obama administration will be able to convince the Syrian opposition to attend the Geneva conference, and Idris said the conference would only be useful if there are certain preconditions, which the regime is unlikely to agree to.

“We are with Geneva if it means that [Syrian President] Bashar [al Assad] will resign and leave the country and the military officials of the regime will be brought to justice,” he said.

In other words, this mess is just the beginning.