Prague, 13 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian newspaper "Kommersant-Daily" reports the alleged deal includes a ground-to-ground tactical missile called the "Iskander-E," which would bring most of Israel into the range of Syria.
Meanwhile, Israel's Channel 2 television reported negotiations also have focused on a portable, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missile called the SA-18. That report described the deal as Syria's biggest weapons procurement in years.
But yesterday, during a visit to Washington, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the reports are false. "No talks are under way between Russia and Syria for the shipment of those operational tactical missiles," Ivanov said.
Ivanov said the issue of the alleged weapons negotiations was not raised during his talks with U.S. President George W. Bush and senior members of the administration. He also said Moscow would not violate any of its treaties if such a deal was made.
"Those missiles are not covered by any of the limitations or international obligations taken on by the Russian Federation. There are no limitations whatsoever on the shipment of those missiles to any foreign countries," Ivanov said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington would be unhappy if any such deal was agreed. "We've seen reports of the sale. The U.S. policy on this is very clear," boucher said. "We're against the sale of weaponry to Syria, against the sale of lethal military equipment to Syria, which is a state sponsor of terrorism. And we think those kinds of sales are not appropriate. The Russians know about this policy. They know about our views."
Robin Hughes, the Middle East editor for the London-based defense-industry publication "Jane's Defense Weekly," said experts on his staff have not been able to confirm the Russian and Israeli media reports. "We understand that this rumor has emerged from the Russian media. It hasn't been confirmed. [Syrian President] Bashar Assad is due to go to Moscow in the coming weeks, and the rumor is that he will sign for these missiles. But to date, we have no confirmation of this," Hughes said.
"Those missiles are not covered by any of the limitations or international obligations taken on by the Russian Federation."
Hughes said he is puzzled as to why Syria would need to purchase Iskander-E missiles from Russia, considering its own weapons development programs. "The Iskander-E -- 'E' standing for 'export' -- is a short-range ballistic missile. Its advantage over other missiles that Syria has at the moment is that it has greater accuracy -- a better guidance system. But I can't see why the Syrians would want that when they are already developing a [more accurate SCUD called the] SCUD-D ballistic missile," Hughes said.
Hughes said a deal for SA-18 antiaircraft missiles would make more sense, in the context of recent Israeli air strikes on Syria and the dilapidated condition of Syrian air defenses. "The SA-18 is a man-portable surface-to-air missile -- easy to deploy and not easy to track because, as I say, they are man-portable," he said. "Troops can carry them in the field, so there are no fixed positions. So it might prove a threat [to Israel]. What has happened is that the Syrian Air Force has been badly depleted in the past decade or so. And the Syrians have invested in their air-defense systems. And this would just be an augmentation to that."
In October 2003, Israeli jets targeted a military camp on Syrian territory. Israeli officials said the attack was they called a "measured defensive operation" against a site that had been used as a training facility by Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Syria said the site was for civilian use. It charged that the Israeli air strike violated the UN Charter and a 1974 disengagement agreement that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Israeli officials say privately they are concerned that SA-18 missiles could threaten Israeli aircraft over Syria and southern Lebanon. There also are concerns that such portable weapons could be passed on to Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.