Diplomat: Russia to arm Syria regime with anti-aircraft missiles to prevent foreign intervention
Top Russian diplomat says Moscow will go through with sale of S-300 missiles to Syrian President Bashar Assad's army; Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon says that if weapon systems reach Syria, Israel will react.
A top Russian diplomat confirmed that Moscow will provide Syria with state-of-the-art air defense missiles to prevent foreign intervention in the country.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov wouldn't say whether Russia has shipped any of the long-range S-300 air defense missile systems, but added that Moscow isn't going to abandon the deal despite strong Western and Israeli criticism.
Ryabkov said the deal helps restrain some "hot heads" considering a military intervention in Syria.
Russia has been the key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, protecting it from the United Nations sanctions and providing it with weapons despite the civil war there that has claimed over 70,000 lives.
Ryabkov's statement comes a day after European Union's decision to lift an arms embargo to Syrian opposition.
After a marathon negotiating session in Brussels, EU governments failed to bridge their differences and let a ban on arming the opposition expire, with France and Britain scoring a victory at the expense of EU unity.
Britain and France have made a commitment not to deliver arms to the Syrian opposition "at this stage," an EU declaration said. But EU officials said the commitment effectively expires on August 1.
France said on Tuesday it reserved the right to send arms immediately to Syrian rebels fighting a two-year-old insurgency but had no plans to do so, despite an agreement by European countries to put off potential deliveries until August 1.
French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot told reporters Paris hoped there would be a breakthrough in finding a political solution over the next two months, but that the EU decision was a political declaration that had no legal basis.
When asked if that meant France could deliver weapons before August 1 if it deemed it necessary, Lalliot said: "Yes."
Britain said on Tuesday it did not have to wait until an August 1 meeting of European Union foreign ministers before taking a decision to arm Syria's rebels, but stressed it had not yet taken any decision.
"I must correct one thing of concern. I know there has been some discussion of some sort of August deadline. That is not the case," Foreign Secretary William Hague told BBC radio, adding that Britain was "not excluded" from arming the rebels before August, and that it would not act alone if it chose to do so.
Israel calls Russia arms sale 'a threat'
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon on Tuesday implied that Israel would retaliate in Syria should the weapons systems reach the war-torn country.
Ya'alon said that Russia's intent to supply Assad's army with the advanced anti-aircraft systems is "a threat, as far as we’re concerned," but asserted that the weapons have yet to be shipped out.
"I can’t say there’s been an acceleration [in weapons delivery]," he told reporters. "The shipments haven’t set out yet and I hope they won’t. If they do arrive in Syria, God forbid, we’ll know what to do.”
The defense minister's statement appears to contradict remarks made by IAF chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, who said last week that Assad's regime has invested millions in purchasing anti-aircraft missiles, and that the S-300 shipment "is on its way."
Russia's foreign minister said earlier this month that Moscow had no new plans to sell the S-300 to Syria but left open the possibility of delivering such systems under an existing contract.
Israel is concerned that the weapons meant for Syria's arsenal could fall into the hands of Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Assad against the rebels in Syria.
Last month Israel reportedly launched air strikes in Syria, targeting medium-range missiles that had arrived from Iran and were destined for Hezbollah.