Assad implies Russian missiles have arrived in Syria
The Syrian president has told Lebanon’s Hezbollah-owned TV station that Damascus received the first shipment of Russian air defence missiles, according to remarks released on Thursday.
Bashar al-Assad’s comment on the arrival of the long-range S-300 air defence missiles in Syria will further ratchet up tensions in the region and undermine efforts to hold UN-sponsored talks with Syria’s warring sides.
Israel’s defence chief, Moshe Yaalon, said earlier this week that Russia’s plan to supply Syria with the weapons is a threat and that Israel was prepared to use force to stop the delivery.
The Al-Manar TV, owned by the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group, released Assad’s comment on the Russian missiles through its breaking news service to clients on Thursday morning. An official at the station confirmed that the remark was from the interview. The TV is to air the exclusive interview later on Thursday.
On Monday, the European Union lifted an arms embargo on Syria, paving way for individual countries of the 27-member bloc to send weapons to rebels fighting to topple Assad’s regime. The move raised fears of an arms race in the Middle East.
Israel has carried out several airstrikes in Syria in recent months that are believed to have destroyed weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah. It is not clear whether Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace in these attacks.
But with the Russian missiles in Syria’s possession, the Israeli air force’s ability to act could be limited.
Israel has lobbied Moscow over the planned sale of S-300 air-defence missiles to Syria but on Tuesday, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said his government remained committed to the deal.
The S-300s have a range of up to 200 kilometres and the capability to track and strike multiple targets simultaneously. Syria already possesses Russian-made air defences, and Israel is believed to have used long-distance bombs fired from Israeli or Lebanese airspace. The S-300s would expand Syria’s capabilities, allowing it to counter airstrikes launched from foreign airspace as well.
Monday’s decision by the EU paved the way for individual countries to send weapons to Assad’s outgunned opponents. The EU’s move may have little impact on the conflict since no single European country is expected to send lethal weapons to the rebels anytime soon.
Britain and France, the main military powers in the EU, had pushed for lifting the embargo. They have argued that Europe’s threat of arming the rebels in the future would force Assad to negotiate in good faith.
Russia, an Assad ally, harshly criticised Europe’s decision to allow the arming of Syrian rebels, saying it undercuts international efforts to bring the opposing sides in Syrian conflict together for a peace conference.