Syria Says It Has Recieved Russian Air Defense Missiles
The Syrian government is claiming that it has received delivery of the Russian air defense missiles I wrote about yesterday:
BEIRUT, Lebanon — President Bashar al-Assad of Syria said in a television interview to be broadcast on Thursday that Russia has delivered S-300 air defense missiles to his country, weapons that Israel has said present a threat to its security and against which it is willing to use force.
“Syria has received the first shipment of Russian antiaircraft S-300 rockets,” Mr. Assad said in the interview, to be broadcast on Al Manar, the television channel of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which in recent weeks has dramatically increased its military intervention in Syria on the side of Mr. Assad’s government. “The rest of the shipment will arrive later today.”
Russian officials had said earlier this week that the country would deliver the weapons to Syria, a move that Mr. Assad’s opponents said was a sign that neither Russia nor the Syrian government was serious about proposed negotiations to end the Syrian civil war that Russia and the United States are trying to organize for as early as next month.
The interview with Mr. Assad was taped on Tuesday, according to the Beirut news director of Iran’s English-language Press TV. That same day, Israel’s defense minister declared categorically that the missile systems had not yet been delivered.
A senior Israeli official said on Thursday that the S-300 missile systems “do not just come in a box” and that different elements would probably be delivered in stages. It was possible, he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic constraints, that some parts had arrived in Syria, but he added that there was no indication at this stage that the systems were anywhere near operational.
Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the issue of the arms sales with the Russians, even as he and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, are trying to arrange a meeting between the Assad government and the rebels. Asked about the missiles and Israeli warnings that the deliveries of them would pose a threat to Israel, the State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said on Wednesday: “We support Israel’s ability to defend themselves, certainly, but we remain hopeful and remain committed to working towards a political transition. And that’s what our focus is here on Syria, and we remain concerned about the overflow impacts of the events that are happening on the ground.”
The Syrian government and the opposition have hardened their positions in recent days, casting doubt on the future of the proposed talks as each side declared a starting point that is thoroughly unacceptable to the other.
On Wednesday, the Syrian opposition said that Mr. Assad’s departure was a prerequisite of talks — a condition his government and Russia reject — while Syria’s foreign minister said that Mr. Assad would stay on at least until 2014 and might seek re-election and that any peace agreement would have to be approved by a referendum.
Mr. Assad’s statements — and the choice of the Hezbollah channel to deliver them — added to the confrontational atmosphere. His statements were first reported in the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar and confirmed by Ali Rizk, who performed the simultaneous translation of the interview to be broadcast on Iran’s Press TV.
Of course, we don’t know if the system is operational yet, or indeed if all the components have arrived. Nonetheless, as I noted yesterday, this is likely to heighten tensions in the area as a whole.