One should take Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's statement that his country is already in possession of the first shipment of Russian S-300 missiles with a substantial grain of salt. The West, which has been following the issue closely, has no indication that such a shipment has actually arrived in Syria, so for the moment it is best to treat Assad's statement as an attempt to manufacture deterrence through rhetoric.
This is a familiar method that Israel itself has been employing over the past few days over the very same missile shipment. The Israeli rationale was to try to foil the shipment via threats, while simultaneously laying the groundwork in the court of public and international opinion for the possibility that the deal would materialize and would lead to a supposedly inevitable Israeli strike.
The Syrian leader's rhetoric also seeks to convey a series of messages: He seeks to make it clear to Israel and the West that Syria is protected, that Israel should avoid a strike on the S-300, and that the West should not even think of imposing a no-fly zone; he seeks to tell the rebels that the regime is immune and that it enjoys the backing of Moscow and its state-of-the-art weapons systems; and he seeks to tell Hezbollah, its ally in the war, that it should remain steadfast in its support and not be deterred by the pressure exerted within Lebanon, for Syria will be back on its feet in no time and will reward Hezbollah for its loyalty.
That is why Assad chose to be interviewed by Al-Manar, Hezbollah's television station. The echoes of the rocket strike that hit Dahieh, a southern Beirut suburb crawling with Hezbollah operatives, reached Damascus as well, as did the explicit threats by various Lebanese officials and the growing criticism over Hezbollah's involvement in Syria and its "importing" of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon.
Assad, who is wary of losing the military backing provided by thousands of Hezbollah operatives, sought to lift their spirits using the most popular method in the Middle East -- threatening Israel.
While Assad's threats of retaliation over past Israeli strikes proved to be little more than empty words, his current rhetoric should not be dismissed so easily. The possibility of an S-300 shipment arriving in Syria entails the potential for volatile scenarios involving not only Israel but Moscow as well.
The deal's high profile and the Kremlin's own statements on the matter (that the S300 will provide "regional stability against the hotheads who are thinking about intervening in Syria") mean that destroying the missiles will not be perceived as "just another strike" in Syria, but as something that may potentially spiral into a conflict between Jerusalem and Moscow.
Despite the various statements made by all the parties involved, Israel should concentrate its behind-the-scenes efforts on pressuring Russia into canceling the deal with Syria. It is possible, for the exact same reasons Russia has avoided supplying Syria with the missiles so far. Russia has also avoided supplying Iran with S-300 missiles, despite a similar deal inked with Tehran in 2010.
Right now, poking the Obama administration in the eye serves Russia's interests, as it wishes to stake a claim in Syria in an attempt to create new hegemony in the Middle East. But in the long run it is in Israel's best interest to keep trying to thwart this dangerous process. Otherwise, the next chapters of this missile crisis might see an Israeli strike leading to a potential regional war, which in turn could develop into an even bigger inter-bloc conflict.