Conflict & Justice

Assad vague on Syria receiving S-300 air defense missiles from Russia


JERUSALEM — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hinted that Russia may have sent a shipment of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria Thursday, just days before the European Union's arms embargo on the country is set to lapse.

Assad was interviewed by Hezbollah's Al-Manar television station. When asked about the Russian missile shipments, he responded: "All the agreements with Russia will be honored and some already have been recently."

However, he remained vague on whether the advanced S-300 air defense system was among the shipments already received.

"The Syrian army has scored major victories against armed rebels on the ground and the balance of power is now with the Syrian army," Assad was also quoted as saying by Lebanon's pro-Syrian Al Akhbar newspaper, BBC News reported.

Before the interview was broadcast, Al-Manar sent text excerpts that quoted the Syrian president as saying Syria was already in posession of the S-300 missiles.

Russia is Assad's most powerful international ally, and announced earlier this week that it intended to honor its promise to supply Syria with the defense system. 

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that the missiles would be a "stabilizing factor" that would prevent international intervention in the region, where a bloody civil war has left around 80,000 dead in over two years of ongoing fighting. 

Moscow has not yet confirmed the shipment's delivery. 

The EU this week decided to let their arms embargo of Syria's rebel fighters lapse June 1, which has opened up the possibility that some member states – such as vocal proponents of arming the Free Syria Army like Britain and France — could send their own weapons shipments to the region. 

Israel has said that the S-300 missiles could reach deep into their territory and threaten flights over Tel Aviv's main commercial airport. They have already launched several air strikes on Damascus in an attempt to thwart weapons transfers to Assad or Hezbollah, who are fighting alongside the regime. 

The government's forces continue to launch attacks on the strategic rebel-held town of Qusayr, and rebel chief Gen. Selim Idriss told BBC News that the town's 50,000 residents were trapped and that a "massacre" would occur if it fell. 

"We are dying," Idriss told BBC in an appeal to Western nations. "Please come and help us."

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Israel, which had hinted it would be forced to act if the the missiles were in fact delivered, is in fact greeting Assad's announcement with skepticism, GlobalPost's Noga Tarnopolsky reports. 

Neither Israeli government officials nor the Israeli army have commented on the development so far. But "it is clear Israel is taking Assad's announcement that one shipment has arrived... with a pretty large grain of salt," Tarnopolsky says.

Indeed, just two days ago, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said no Russian weapons had arrived in Syria. 

Speaking of the missile defense system at the IDF 'Home Front Command', he said: "Clearly this move is a threat to us, even though at this point I cannot say that there is a step-up in the shipments of S-300."

"The deliveries have not taken place, I can attest to this, and I hope they do not," he said. "But if, by some misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do."

Israel has not officially revised its assessment since Ya'alon's Tuesday statement, but is declining to embark upon a war of words with the Syrian leader, Tarnopolsky says.

Still, National Security Advisor Ya'akov Amidror used a briefing last week with diplomats to issue a de facto warning to Syria, saying that Israel would "prevent the S-300 missiles from becoming operational."

Two senior US officials also told Fox News that any hints Assad may have dropped about having the S-300 missile shipments were lies.

GlobalPost's senior correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem.