Syria: Assad Says Government Is to Receive Missiles from Russia


Luke Harding and Phoebe Greenwood in Tel Aviv, and Paul Owen – The Guardian

President’s claim raises tensions after indication by senior Israeli figures that delivery may prompt pre-emptive attack.

Syria‘s president, Bashar al-Assad, has said Russia will deliver anti-aircraft missiles to Syria – a claim likely to dramatically increase tensions in the region and which could provoke the Israelis to launch a future strike against the weapons.

In an interview with Lebanon’s al-Manar channel Assad refused to confirm if Moscow had already begun to deliver long-range S-300 air defence rockets.

But he said he expected the Kremlin to fulfil the order, and added: “All our agreements with Russia will be implemented and parts of them have already been implemented.”

Assad also claimed his forces were winning the battle on the ground and had scored “major victories” against the armed opposition. “The balance of power is now with the Syrian army,” he told the TV channel, which is owned by the Shia militant group Hezbollah, whose fighters support the Assad regime.

The deal between the Kremlin and the Syrian government has been in train for some time.

But the S-300 shipment, if confirmed, appears to be Russian retaliation for the EU’s controversial decision this week to lift an arms embargo on Syria. Britain, France and states in the region such as Turkey are now actively seeking to arm moderate rebels.

There was confusion on Thursday in western capitals after an early version of the interview quoted Assad as saying the S-300s had already arrived. US officials said they did not know the situation. One high-ranking Israeli official said: “We are trying to find out exactly what the situation is but currently we just don’t know.”

Analysts said it was possible some elements of the S-300 system – made up of launchers, radar and a command-and-control vehicle – had turned up but doubted the system was yet operational.

Nonetheless, senior Israeli figures signalled the possibility that Israel could in future launch a pre-emptive attack on Syria with a view to destroying the S-300s, which it sees as an existential threat.

Earlier this week the defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, said Israel could not afford to allow the new system to become fully functional.

The Israeli official added: “This move will certainly change the whole dynamic. This is mostly as a result of the EU’s reckless decision to lift the arms embargo.

“I don’t know if the shipment of the missiles was a direct result of that decision, but it certainly gave the Russians a pretext to go ahead and do what they wanted to do in the first place. If they had any misgivings, doubts about the timing, the EU decision rid them of these.”

Others went further and suggested there was a genuine prospect the Russian delivery could trigger a destructive Israeli-Syrian war.

Four weeks ago, Israeli warplanes struck targets near the capital, Damascus, reportedly wiping out Iranian missiles destined for Hezbollah. Syria did not respond.

“I’m quite convinced that the more times we attack, there will be accumulative pressure on the [Syrian] regime to react,” Shlomo Bron, a senior Israeli security figure, said.

“It’s difficult to know when and where this breaking point will be. But the likelihood of a very real flare-up between Israel and Syria is much higher than it used to be.”

Major General Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, added: “If we do something soon after the transfer, we might have business not only with Syria but with the Russians. This is a real hot potato.”

The Foreign Office described Russia’s move as unhelpful. It said Damascus had proved itself “incapable of using its weapons systems proportionately or discriminately” and had fired lethal Scud missiles against its own cities, such as Aleppo. The focus should now be on the political process, the Foreign Office said.

But attempts to convene an international peace conference next month in Geneva appeared to be on the brink of failure after Syria’s opposition announced it was pulling out.

The fragmented National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces said it would not participate in “meaningless” talks while the Assad government continued to massacre Syrian civilians.

It also decried “Iran’s malicious invasion of Syria” – a reference to Iran’s active role in the conflict on the side of Assad. Tehran has dispatched Revolutionary Guards to train pro-government militias, and is a key sponsor of Hezbollah, which has vigorously supported the Syrian regime.

In his TV interview, Assad conceded that Hezbollah fighters were taking part in battles inside Syria. But he downplayed Hezbollah’s role and said it was fighting “Israeli agents” rather than defending the Syrian state.

The developments on Thursday raise fears that the two-year Syrian struggle is morphing inexorably into a high-stakes regional war, as well as a cold war-style proxy conflict pitting an implacable Russia against the west.

Russian officials did not comment on whether Assad’s claims were true. Previously, however, the Kremlin said it had agreed to deliver the S-300s to Syria before the civil war erupted, and added that the S-300s could help reduce tensions by deterring what it called “foreign interference”.

The Washington Post on Thursday published a leaked document suggesting Moscow supplied the Assad regime with 20,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and 20m rounds of ammunition in March alone.

Assad’s comments on Thursday suggest the Syrian government has been emboldened by a series of recent victories over the rebels.

In his interview, Assad warned that Damascus would retaliate immediately if Israel struck Syria again, and raised the prospect of opening a new front against the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

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