Israeli intelligence officials, anxious about Russian promises to provide anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad government, arrived in Moscow on Tuesday to persuade the Kremlin to stay out of Syria's civil war. However, it seems as though the high-tech weapons, designed to shoot down advanced Western airborne military systems like cruise missiles and aircraft, may have already arrived and are being distributed to Syrian government forces.
Russia claims that the long-range S-300 weapon system will be a "stabilizing factor" in the conflict, dissuading Western "hotheads” from intervening in what they believe should remain an internal conflict.
As well as making any Libya-style aerial intervention far more costly for the West, Russia's choice of anti-aircraft weaponry sends a clear a message to the Israeli government after their bombing of Hezbollah-bound missiles in Syrian territory earlier this month.
Stretching back four decades, and trade ties worth close to $20 billion in military and natural gas contracts, Russia's connection to the Assad government runs deep. Since 2011, Russian politicians have echoed Syrian government assertions that the uprising was linked to terrorist groups, even before such claims became credible.
With the Kremlin now flexing its muscles in support of Assad, Syria has the potential to evolve into a new kind of proxy war between Russia and the West that is unlikely to be resolved through negotiations. Without a cast-iron guarantee of neutrality, the Israelis are unlikely to convince the Russians to backtrack on their commitment to Assad.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite being recently quoted as claiming the S-300 would "turn Israel into a no-fly-zone," will not give up Israel's long-standing policy of striking anywhere in the Middle East that could conceivably threaten Israeli security.
With no promises of neutrality forthcoming from the Western powers — with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague saying he supports arming "moderate" rebels after the EU arms embargo ends on August 1 — Russia has no reason to renounce its support to one of its few remaining pre-Soviet allies.
This is, as usual, bad news for ordinary Syrians. With both sides of the civil war now finding support from the great powers, and the possibility of escalation that a proxy war may bring, a peaceful solution is becoming ever more remote.
Assad, more secure from the possibility of foreign air strikes thanks to his Russian weaponry, will now be able to direct more resources towards the domestic campaign without fear of being caught out in the way of Colonel Gadaafi.
The Syrian opposition will likely receive Western military support, if they have not done so already, and has also been recently strengthened by the arrival of experienced fighters from Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.
If both sides of the civil war continue to be strengthened by external actors, whether through Western military aid or Russian aerial equipment, the conflict could become even more deadly. With no side able to make significant gains against the other, the death toll will continue to climb and Syria will remain in stalemate.