Russia plays down uproar over Syria arms sales
UN, Russia agree to hold Syria peace conference 'as soon as possible'
Russia’s foreign minister said on Friday he did not understand the international uproar created by Moscow’s continuing weapons co-operation with regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I do not understand why the media is trying to create a sensation out of this,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “We have not hidden that we supply weapons to Syria under signed contracts, without violating any international agreements, or our own legislation.”
Lavrov said during a joint press appearance in Sochi with visiting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that Russia only supplied defence weapons that could not alter the outcome of the 26-month conflict between Assad’s forces and the opposition.
“We are first and foremost supplying defence weapons related to air defence,” Lavrov said in televised comments.
“This does not in any way alter the balance of forces in this region or give any advantage in the fight against the opposition,” he stressed.
Israel in particular is concerned that Russia is reportedly ready to supply Syria with high-tech S-300 surface-to-air missiles that could take out other nation’s fighter jets.
The New York Times separately reported on Friday that Russia had sent Syria a shipment of upgraded Yakhonts anti-ship missiles that would make any naval blockade of Syria more difficult.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon and Russia agreed on Friday that a peace conference on Syria should be held “as soon as possible”, even as Moscow defied growing global pressure over its arms supplies to the Damascus regime.
Ban met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before starting talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin about an impending international meeting on Syria that should include representatives of the two warring parties for the first time.
“There are high expectations and the meeting should be held as soon as possible,” Ban told reporters alongside Lavrov. Russia’s top diplomat added: “The sooner this conference is held, the better.”
But Lavrov still cautioned that it was too early to name the date of the Geneva meeting – now expected for the first half of June – because the actual makeup of the Syrian delegations had not yet been set.
“We have to come up with a decision about the Syrian delegations and the group of this conference’s participants,” Lavrov said. “Nothing is possible without this.”
The new talks are meant to include both the fiercest rebels and members of the regime – a difficulty considering some opposition members’ refusal to recognise Assad as a negotiating partner.
Moscow is also calling for the inclusion on this occasion of its trading partner Iran and US ally Saudi Arabia as a counterweight.
Putin later told Ban that he expected the United Nations to play the decisive role in this and all other international disputes.
“Today we (Russia), as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, are defending the UN’s central role in international affairs,” Putin told Ban in televised comments in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The Geneva talks were agreed during a May 7 visit to Moscow by US Secretary of State John Kerry and are seen as a rare joint peace push by the two former cold war rivals some 26 months into the Syrian war.
But US President Barack Obama admits that mistrust lingers between Moscow and Washington and the world community remains particularly concerned by Russia’s arms deliveries to its longstanding ally Assad.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Putin in Sochi on Tuesday not to follow through with Russia’s reported decision to ship powerful S-300 surface-to-air missiles that can take out fighter jets.
The New York Times reported on Friday that Russia had also sent the regime a new batch of upgraded Yakhont anti-ship missile systems that would make a shipping embargo of Syria much more difficult to enforce.
The report prompted Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to note that “the transfer of arms to Syria is clearly not positive and does not contribute to the stability of the region.”