x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Russia and US in war of words over arming Syria

Dispute over arming rival sides in the Syrian conflict as Russia's foreign minister holds talks with Syria's ally Iran.

TEHRAN // Russia and the United States were in dispute over arming the rival sides in the Syrian conflict yesterday, as the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, held talks in Tehran with Syria's ally Iran.

Due to what Moscow said was a mistake in translation, Mr Lavrov appeared at first to accuse the US of supplying weapons to Syria's rebels who are battling the Damascus regime supported by Moscow.

On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said that she had information that Russia was sending to Syria "attack helicopters ... which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically".

Mr Lavrov said at a news conference during a brief visit to Iran that Russia was supplying "anti-air defence systems" to Damascus in a deal that "in no way violates international laws".

"That contrasts with what the United States is doing with the opposition, which is providing arms to the Syrian opposition which are being used against the Syrian government," he said, in remarks translated from Russian into Farsi by an official interpreter.

Other media, including Iran's official IRNA news agency, published the same accusation, in what appeared to be the first time Moscow had directly pointed the finger at Washington.

But in Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry later said Mr Lavrov's statement was mistranslated and that the minister had only said Washington was supplying arms "in the region".

The White House, meanwhile, denied arming Syria's opposition.

"We do not and have not supplied weapons to the Syrian opposition. You know our position on that and we have made it very clear," the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said.

Russian news agencies offered a different version of Mr Lavrov's comments. "We do not supply, neither to Syria nor anywhere else, things used to fight peaceful civilians, unlike the United States, which regularly supplies such special equipment to this region," Mr Lavrov was quoted as saying.

The Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said at the same news conference with Mr Lavrov that Tehran and Moscow were "very close" on the Syrian issue.

Western and Arab nations, he said, "are sending weapons to Syria and forces to Syria, and are not allowing the reforms promised by the Syrian president to be applied".

Reports in Iran allege that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the US are arming Syria's rebels, termed "terrorists" by Damascus, while US officials claim Iran is giving arms and military advisers to Syria's regime.

As Russia and western countries continued to dispute what action to take on Syria, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said yesterday that the imposition of no-fly zones were being considered as "one of the options" to deal with the crisis.

Mrs Clinton also warned Moscow that its approach to the Syrian uprising threatened its interests in the Middle East.

"Russia says it wants peace and stability restored," she said.

"It says it has no particular love lost for Assad and it also claims to have vital interests in the region and relationships that it wants to continue to keep. They put all of that at risk if they do not move more constructively right now."

Russia came under fierce criticism from western and Arab countries for vetoing two UN Security Council resolutions that would have sanctioned Bashar Al Assad for his use of force.

Since then, it has sought to distance itself from Mr Assad while continuing to support his regime. "We do not support any individual or government, we support the people of Syria," Mr Lavrov said.

Moscow is now trying to organise an international conference on Syria that would include several nations with influence over the conflict, including Iran.

The US, Britain and France, though, object to Iran taking part.

"We want the support of all the players," Mr Lavrov said.

"All sides in the conflict need to stop operations ... Any player with leverage should apply pressure to stop the violence and facilitate negotiations," he said.

* Agence France-Presse with additional reports from Associated Press and Reuters