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Russia supplying weaponry to Syria’s Assad; EU lifts ban on aiding rebels

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Obama administration responded sharply to Russia's announcement Tuesday that it will proceed with the delivery of sophisticated weapons to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad despite the administration's attempts to get Moscow's help toward peacefully resolving Syria's civil war.

Moscow made the announcement just hours after Secretary of State John F. Kerry held one-on-one talks in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, claiming the two were "deeply committed" to working together toward ending the fighting and engineering a peaceful handover of power in Syria.

"We disagree with and we condemn the continued supply of Russian weapons to the [Syrian] regime," said Patrick Ventrell, State Department deputy spokesman, in response to the Kremlin's declaration that it would deliver an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to forces loyal to Mr. Assad.

With Israel threatening to strike such air-defense systems if delivered to Syria, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Russia's announcement "does not bring us closer to the political transition that Syria deserves."

The Russian move also came just one day after the European Union allowed its own embargo on weapons transfers into Syria to expire — a development likely to pave the way for Britain and France to begin shipping their own military hardware to rebels fighting for Mr. Assad's ouster.

At the State Department, Mr. Ventrell told reporters that the EU development was positive in that it "give the flexibility to specific EU member states to assist the opposition in the way that each sees fit under their own national decision making."

But foreign policy insiders said the dovetailing of the development with Russia's latest move signals a potentially serious escalation of international tensions surrounding Syria — with an already brutal war that has killed more than 80,000 Syrians since 2011 threatening to evolve into an East-West proxy war.

Inside Syria on Tuesday, the commander of the main Western-backed umbrella group of rebel brigades told The Associated Press that he urgently needs Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to prevent further regime gains on the battlefield. The rebels' weapons are no match for the Syrian regime's modern tanks and warplanes, he said.

Such sentiments appear to be fueling the recent round of pressure in Washington for the Obama administration to begin offering direct military support to the rebels, with the latest such event being the surprise visit by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, to rebel-held areas in Syria.

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last week pushed through legislation that would give the White House power to provide heavy weaponry to the rebels — a strategy the administration has resisted, saying the risk of American hardware flowing into the hands of Islamist terrorists is too great.

It is not yet clear when, or whether, the legislation will pass the full Senate. But Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and Foreign Relations Committee chairman, argued Tuesday that it could be used to dramatically and positively change the landscape of the war.

"If Assad can continue to have a monopoly on air power and artillery, then he doesn't think that he's going to lose this war and he thinks that he can win a war of attrition," he said during an interview on MSNBC.

"So we have to do something to change the dynamic so that Assad has a recalculation or that his patrons have a recalculation," he said. "Our legislation is to give the president the wherewithal, should he decide to use it, to arm vetted elements of the Syrian opposition."

Moscow seemed to be making the exact opposite argument Tuesday, with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov claiming that arrival of the S-300 missile system into the hands of Mr. Assad's forces will serve as "a stabilizing factor" in Syria.

According to a report by the BBC, Mr. Ryabkov said the system's delivery "will deter some hotheads from considering scenarios that would turn the conflict international, with the involvement of outside forces."

While analysts said Mr. Ryabkov likely was referring to Israel in his remarks, rather than the U.S. or European nations, the posturing does not bode well for any efforts to draw Moscow into the Western diplomatic fold with regard to Syria.

"The Russian sale of the S-300 to Syria is a massive game changer," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior national security Middle East scholar at the Center for Strategic International Studies think tank in Washington. "If it is more than a matter of words, and actual transfers take place, it virtually ensures that the U.S.-Russian talks will be meaningless."

Such a development would also send "warning signals" to the West about Russia's possible intent to make "similar arms transfer to Iran," said Mr. Cordesman, who added that Moscow's move may also "drag Israel into the Syrian fighting, and would sharply alter U.S. and allied 'no fly' capabilities if the Syrians can quickly absorb the system and make it effective."

David Hartwell, Middle East analyst at IHS Jane's, said that Russia's use of the word "hotheads" was likely "a reference to Israel which has carried out two air raids in Syria in 2013 on what it alleged were Hezbollah-bound weapons convoys."

The S-300 is an advanced, road-mobile, surface-to-air missile system that, like the U.S. Patriot, can shoot down other missiles as well as aircraft.

Russian authorities claimed the Syrian government's contract for the system was signed several years ago — prior to the wave of Arab Spring protests against Mr. Assad that ultimately boiled into a full-blown civil war in 2011. Russia's envoy to NATO, Aleksandr Grushko, said Moscow was acting "fully within the framework of international law" and "not doing anything that could change the situation in Syria."

"The arms that we supply are defensive weapons," Mr. Grushko said, according to the BBC.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Tuesday that Israel believes the Russian missiles have not yet been shipped, but that the Israeli military "will know what to do" if they are delivered.

Earlier this month, Israeli airstrikes hit suspected shipments of advanced Iranian missiles near the Syrian capital of Damascus that were purportedly intended for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that is fighting alongside Syrian regime forces.

Gen. Salim Idris, military chief of the Free Syrian Army, meanwhile, said Tuesday that rebel fighters under his command were at risk of losing control of a strategic town in western Syrian in the coming days unless he gets weapons quickly.

He said thousands of Hezbollah fighters are participating in an offensive against Qusair that began May 19, and that his fighters are outnumbered by more than 3-to-1.

"Time is a very important factor now in the battle in Qusair," he said. "When they wait for a week [to send weapons], maybe Qusair will be under the control of Hezbollah. Then we don't need their [the West's] help, we don't need their support."

On Monday, Gen. Idris accompanied Mr. McCain into a rebel-held area in northern Syria for a meeting with about a dozen local commanders. In a comment on Twitter, the Arizona Republican on Tuesday praised the "brave fighters" battling Mr. Assad and renewed his call for the Obama administration to move aggressively to provide military aid to the opposition.

Shaun Waterman contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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