x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Assad boasts of Russian air defence missiles

The Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, claims his regime has received a shipment of advanced air-defence equipment from Russia, raising the stakes for any possible western intervention in the country. Bradley Hope reports

BEIRUT // The Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, claimed his regime had received a shipment of advanced air-defence equipment from Russia, raising the stakes for any possible western intervention in the country.
Russia is a key ally of the Syrian regime and it seemed to have grown more defiant since the European Union let its arms embargo on Syria expire, opening up the possibility of the West arming the Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow Mr Al Assad.
In an interview with Lebanon's Al Manar TV channel broadcast last night Mr Assad said that Russia remained committed to military deals signed with Damascus before the outbreak of conflict in the country.
Asked specifically about the delivery of Russian S-300 air defence missiles, Mr Al Assad said: "Everything we have agreed on with Russia will take place, and part of it has already taken place."
Al Manar is affiliated with Hizbollah, Lebanon's powerful Shiite group that supports Mr Al Assad's regime.
The Syrian president also warned that his forces would respond to any future strike on Syria by Israel,  which is believed to have launched three airstrikes so far this year.
Israel repeatedly voiced concern about the possibility of Syria acquiring Russian military hardware.
It was unclear whether Mr Al Assad's claims were bluster meant to solidify the Syrian regime's position in peace talks scheduled as early as next month in Geneva or if Syria had indeed received shipments.
Russia first announced that it would ship the missile system to Syria on Tuesday after an EU embargo against supplying weapons to Syrian rebels was not renewed. Sergei Rybakov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, said at the time that "such steps are to a great extent restraining some 'hot heads'", according to Russian state media.
Russia had previously planned to sell S-300 rockets to Syria in 2010, but shipments were delayed because of western pressure after the 2011 uprising against the Al Assad regime broke out during the wider Arab Spring protests.
Combined with statements from Hizbollah that it was firmly on Mr Al Assad's side and had sent soldiers to fight against rebels just over the border in Qusayr, the delivery of the Russian missiles was expected to embolden the Syrian president in any future negotiations.
Western countries, which had been deliberating over how to give Syrian rebels an edge over the government's army, were already wary of enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria because of the country's air-defence capabilities. The Russian missiles would create an even greater risk for western fighter jets.
However, the United States said on Wednesday that every option, including the possibility of a no-fly zone, remained on the table.
Russia's foreign ministry responded yesterday by questioning Washington's commitment to brokering the Syria peace talks together with Moscow, and cautioning it against a "bellicose agenda on Syria".
The US national security council spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden, warned that the weapons supply - including air-defence systems - would "only prolong the violence in Syria and incite regional destabilisation".
Mr Al Assad's statements yesterday appeared tio be a direct provocation of Israel, which had earlier suggested it would bomb the Russian missiles if they were delivered to Syria. Officials in Jerusalem yesterday said they were "looking into" the claims by Mr Al Assad. The Israeli defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, claimed on Tuesday the missiles had not yet left Russia.
"The shipments haven't set out yet and I hope they won't," he said. "If they do arrive in Syria, God forbid, we'll know what to do."
Israel believed the S-300 missiles were capable of reaching into its airspace, which it considered a major threat to its air force and domestic airlines.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted the national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, as saying Israel would "prevent the S-300 missiles from becoming operational".
That may be achieved by ensuring Mr Al Assad does not get the full system, experts say, or by disabling it militarily if he does.
"The S-300 would be the pinnacle of Russian-supplied arms for Syria," said Col Zvika Haimovich, a senior Israeli air force officer.
"Though it would impinge on our operations, we are capable of overcoming it."
Israel's three airstrikes in Syria this year were to stop what it believed were transfers of weapons to Hizbollah in Lebanon.
Mr Al Assad praised Hizbollah's support for his regime, saying that "Syria and Hizbollah are part of the same axis".

bhope@thenational.ae
* With additional reporting from Reuters
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