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U.S. Warns Against Russian Missile Sales to Syria

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The Daily Star
Special to In Homeland Security

BEIRUT — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday the transfer of advanced missile defense systems from Russia to Syria would be a “destabilizing” factor for Israel’s security, as Damascus welcomed a Washington-Moscow initiative for peace talks.

However, despite the regime’s praise of the proposed peace accord, Bashar Assad’s government also said it would retaliate immediately to any new Israeli airstrike, after two reported attacks on military targets over the weekend.

Kerry said the U.S. had expressed concerns about what Russian defensive systems in Syria would mean for Israel’s security. He wouldn’t address what the missiles might mean for Syria’s civil war.

He spoke to reporters in Rome after the Wall Street Journal reported that Russia was preparing to sell the weapons to Assad’s regime.

Coming just days after Kerry hailed what he described as a U.S.-Russia breakthrough on Syria, the report suggested Moscow may already be angling to further strengthen the Assad regime two years into a war that has killed more than 70,000 people.

“We have previously stated that the missiles are potentially destabilizing with respect to the state of Israel,” Kerry said. “We have made it crystal clear that we prefer that Russia would not supply them assistance,” he told reporters alongside new Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino. “That is on record. That hasn’t changed.”

Israeli officials said they had asked Russia to cancel the imminent sale to the Assad regime of advanced ground-to-air missile systems.

Such weapons would enhance the Syrian government’s defensive ability and make it even harder for the U.S. and other governments to consider even the possibility of trying to enforce a no-fly zone in the country or otherwise intervening militarily.

Russia rarely comments publicly on arms sales or transfers, and there has been no official word on the deal.

Even before Syria’s 2011 uprising, the Israelis warned about a sale of S300 batteries, which can target manned planes, drones and incoming missiles. Moscow had held off on the deal under persistent U.S. and Israeli pressure.

Despite friction between Russia, which supports Assad, and the U.S., which backs the rebels, in recent days Moscow and the Washington agreed to seek new peace talks that would bring together the opposing sides.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry Thursday welcomed the initiative, under which the two countries will seek to convene an international summit to build on a six-point accord agreed in Geneva last year.

Kerry said that all sides were working to “effect a transition government by mutual consent of both sides, which clearly means that in our judgement President Assad will not be a component of that transitional government.”

But the Damascus said “only the Syrian people will decide on their future and the constitutional system of their country, with no foreign interference.”

And it said it was “confident that the Russian position, which is based on the principles of the U.N. charter and international law, will not change.”

In the wake of the Russia-U.S. proposed deal, U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi has agreed to stay on in his post despite frustration at the international deadlock that has prevented U.N. action to halt the 2-year-old war, the United Nations said Thursday.

The plan was praised by the United Nations as long overdue.

“We were waiting for it for a long time, pushed very hard for a negotiated transition,” U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told reporters.

“We doubt whether a military victory is possible, particularly within the near future,” he said. “An explosion of revenge could lead to an even worse situation. So this [U.S.-Russian initiative] is welcome. This is good news.”Eliasson said it would not be easy to bring about an end to a conflict that the United Nations says has killed at least 70,000 — a figure that U.N. diplomats and officials say is out of date and well below the likely actual death toll.

“We now of course have challenges ahead of us,” he said. “Lots of work that has to be done. The secretary-general takes it seriously and has asked the joint special representative [Brahimi] to stay on, and he has accepted to stay on.”

Brahimi has repeatedly threatened to step down and recently told Security Council members he wanted to leave the job, though all tried to persuade him to remain, diplomats said.

As the peace plan garnered support, Damascus warned that it would not hesitate to respond militarily if Israel strikes inside Syrian territory again.

In an interview with AFP, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad said “the instruction has been made to respond immediately to any new Israeli attack without [additional] instruction from any higher leadership, and our retaliation will be strong and will be painful against Israel.”

Senior Israeli sources have said strikes on early Friday and Sunday targeted weapons bound for Hezbollah, but Muqdad denied that.

“They absolutely did not achieve their objective and they lied when they said they are targeting Hezbollah,” he said, adding there is “no way Syria will allow this to happen again.”

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