x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

US calls on Russia to halt Syria missile sale

The United States does not want Russia to sell weapons to Syria and has previously opposed transfers of missile systems to the country because of the threat to Israel, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, says.

ROME // The United States does not want Russia to sell weapons to Syria and has previously opposed transfers of missile systems to the country because of the threat to Israel, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said yesterday.

Mr Kerry did not specifically comment on a newspaper report this week that said Russia was poised to sell new advanced ground-to-air missiles to the Syrian regime now engaged in a bloody civil war.

But asked about the report, he said the US had opposed such arms deals in the past.

"I think we have made it crystal clear we would prefer that Russia was not supplying assistance," Mr Kerry said after meeting the Italian foreign minister, Emma Bonino.

The Wall Street Journal this week said Israel had informed the US of the imminent weapons sale by Russia.

Security officials in Israel confirmed yesterday that it had asked Russia to cancel the sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, which could complicate further military intervention.

Mr Kerry was in Rome after a visit to Moscow, where the the US and Russia had agreed to pursue fresh peace talks in an attempt to end Syria's civil war.

He said the US was grateful to Russia for trying to arrange a second conference to end the war, perhaps in Geneva.

Russia, with China, has repeatedly foiled Washington on Syria, blocking three UN Security Council resolutions against the regime of Bashar Al Assad.

However, after meeting the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, this week, Mr Kerry offered only strong praise for Russia, and said the focus now needed to be on how to persuade the warring parties to take part in peace talks - and not on which governments are providing which sides with weaponry.

He said Mr Lavrov had made a "very important" statement by declaring that Russia was not tied to "any one person" in Syria, suggesting it was comfortable seeing Mr Al Assad leave power.

Syria yesterday welcomed what it described as the rapprochement between the United States and Russia, saying Damascus was convinced by the "the firm Russian stance, which is based on the UN principles of non-interference in internal affairs or the threat to use force against the safety of any state", according to a foreign ministry statement quoted by state media.

Syria yesterday also warned that it would "respond immediately" to any new Israeli attack against its territory, after two reported Israeli strikes last week.

"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," said the deputy foreign minister, Faisal Muqdad.

Senior Israeli sources said the strikes had targeted weapons bound for the Lebanese Shiite group Hizbollah, a close ally of Damascus

Mr Muqdad denied that. "They absolutely did not achieve their objective and they lied when they said they are targeting Hizbollah," he said.

The Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, yesterday said that Syria would supply "game-changing" weapons to his group in response to Israel's air strikes.

"Syria will give the resistance special weapons it never had before," he said during a televised speech. "We mean game-changing."

"This is the Syrian strategic reaction," Mr Nasrallah said of future weapons shipments.

"This is more important than firing a rocket or carrying out an air strike in occupied Palestine."

Mr Nasrallah acknowledged last week that members of his group were fighting inside Syria alongside regime troops as they attempted to retake the key town of Qusayr in central Syria from rebel forces .

There were fierce clashes between rebels and fighters loyal to the Assad's regime yesterday, a monitoring group said.

An army officer said the military had seized control of Shumariyeh village, near Qusayr.

"The Syrian army seized back control of Shumariyeh in the Qusayr countryside, and troops are currently on their way to the village of Ghassaniyeh" which has been under rebel control for more than a year, the officer said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the claim.

"Backed by pro-regime militia and Hizbollah fighters, the army is advancing in the Qusayr area," said the observatory's director, Rami Abdel Rahman.

"They have superior firepower and their campaign to take back Qusayr is fierce," he added.

The town is strategically located near the Lebanese border and just south of Syria's third city, Homs, which lies on the road linking Damascus to the coast.

* With Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse