U.S. Says Russia's New Missiles in Syria Pose 'Greater Risk,' but Allies Say They're 'Not Bad'

U.S. officials have warned that Russia's delivery of the S-300 missile system to the Syrian armed forces could prove to escalate tensions in the war-torn country, but the political wing of the Pentagon's main partner there saw it as a potentially positive development.

Sinam Mohamad is the head of the Syrian Democratic Council mission in Washington and represents the political interests of the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces battling the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) with the support of a U.S.-led coalition. The U.S. has largely focused its mission in Syria on battling the jihadis in recent years, but has struck Syrian government sites on occasion and Russia's decision to supply its ally with the S-300 anti-aircraft and missile defense system. This was in response to an international incident involving an Israeli raid on suspected Iranian positions that prompted concern from political and military figures.

Unlike the once-CIA-backed Syrian opposition, however, Mohamad's group has not explicitly called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's downfall and saw the benefits of an empowered Syrian air defense network.

"We don't have any concerns about [the S-300 systems]. I think it is up to the Syrian government and the Russian government…They have the deal between themselves and they support Syria with the S-300. I think this will [strengthen] the defense of the Syrian government [against] any threat to it. It is not bad," she said, according to Russia's state-run Sputnik News Agency.

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Russia delivers the S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in these images shared October 2 by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Moscow's decision to supply Damascus with the improved anti-aircraft and missile defense system came after Syria accidentally shot down a Russian plane during an Israeli air raid. Russian Ministry of Defense

The U.S. was a leading supporter of the 2011 rebel and jihadi uprising that threatened Assad's rule, but began to draw back this assistance as the insurgency grew increasingly Islamist and ISIS began to take over the country. The U.S. and coalition allies began bombing ISIS in 2014 and partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces the following year, around the same time that Moscow entered the fight to support the Syrian military.

Syria has also received Iranian backing, something that has prompted Israeli intervention as well. Israel has accused Tehran of attempting to set up forward bases via military advisers and various Shiite Muslim militias fighting on behalf of Assad. Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes against suspected Iranian positions in the neighboring country, and outdated Syrian air defenses trying to counter such an attack last month accidentally downed a Russian Il-20 surveillance plane in a series of events that both Moscow and Damascus have blamed on Israel.

Russia responded by delivering a batch of more contemporary S-300 surface-to-air missile systems the Syrian military would use directly. Syrian and Iranian have officials have warned Israel against pursuing further strikes, something it has vowed to continue doing anyway. In statements sent to Newsweek, a U.S.-led coalition spokesperson said the introduction of the equipment "is a concern," and a U.S. Army representative warned that it would be "an exacerbation of the conflict and an escalation of the humanitarian situation."

National security adviser John Bolton said that "introducing the S-300s to the Syrian government would be a significant escalation by the Russians." Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters during a press briefing on Tuesday that "having the Russians deliver the S-300 into Syria presents [a] greater risk to all of those in the affected areas and to stability in the Middle East." He added: "We consider this a very serious escalation."

This would not be the first time that the views of the U.S. and its leading ally in Syria diverged. The People's Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that forms a significant faction of the Syrian Democratic Forces, has fought alongside pro-Syrian government forces, most notably to defeat rebels in Aleppo in 2016 and in an attempt to repel insurgents backed by Turkey in Afrin earlier this year.

The Syrian Democratic Council has also entered into negotiations with the government in Damascus, in hopes of securing greater autonomy in the northern and northeastern territories it holds and in July, even appeared to offer support to a potential Syrian military offensive in Idlib, the last province held by an Islamist-led insurgency.

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Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces attend the funeral of four fellow fighters killed battling ISIS, during a procession in the northeastern city of Qamishli on September 14. The Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government are both battling ISIS, but have different visions of post-conflict Syria. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian Democratic Forces commander Mazloum Kobani was quoted Monday by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the leading Syrian Kurdish party, as saying "we have no problem with Bashar al-Assad and if the people want to choose him, we have no problem with that and we will be part of the Syrian regime forces in that case." He also said he would raise the national flag in areas that his group controls should a political solution be found.

These talks appear to have stalled, however, as the two sides struggle to reconcile conflicting visions of post-war Syria. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who has previously expressed openness to limited Kurdish self-rule, told Russia's state-run RT channel Sunday that "the Americans entered Syria without legitimacy and their presence strengthens the Kurds' tendency to secede. He said that "Washington ruined the talks between Damascus and the Democratic Syrian Council and provided military support for it," while funding anti-government groups in the U.S.-declared deconfliction zone of Al-Tanf, where U.S. troops and insurgents conducted an airstrike rehearsal drill on Thursday.

Syrian Democratic Council co-chair Amina Omar blamed the government for blocking talks, but told Syrian Kurdish outlet Hawar News Agency on Wednesday that she was still willing to sit down with the government at any time "because we believe that the political solution is the best solution to end the Syrian crisis."