US scolds Russia for sending arms to Syria

Senior military officer says weapons transfer will "prolong suffering" amid push for international peace conference, could prove a threat to warships in the Mediterranean

US scolds Russia for sending arms to Syria

World Bulletin/News Desk

The United States chided Russia for sending missiles to the Syrian government as plans for a peace conference promoted by Washington and Moscow were hit by diplomatic rifts over its scope and purpose.

But the divisions among world powers that have prevented a coordinated resolution were also again on display, just 10 days after Russia and the United States agreed to bury differences and push for an urgent international conference to end the war.

The most senior U.S. military officer, General Martin Dempsey, described Russia's recent delivery of anti-ship missiles to Assad as "ill-timed and very unfortunate" and risked prolonging a war which has already killed more than 80,000 Syrians and which the U.N. said had driven 1.5 million abroad.

While not responding directly to U.S. assertions that it had sent Yakhont missiles, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said Russia would honour contracts to supply Syria, which has been a customer for Moscow's weaponry since the Cold War.

"It's at the very least an unfortunate decision that will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering," Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.

The missiles Russia recently delivered have advanced radar that makes them more effective against ships, The New York Times reported Friday, quoting US officials who are familiar with classified intelligence reports.

With a range of 300 km (200 miles), the Yakhont could prove a threat to warships in the Mediterranean, should, for example, Western powers abandon their deep reserve and intervene to offer air support to the rebels, as they did in Libya two years ago.

At the same press briefing, Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel said a primary reason for US Secretary of State John Kerry's recent trip to Moscow was to talk with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about Syria and finding common ground.

Kerry has indicated that he raised the issue of Russian arms deliveries to Syria during his recent visit to Moscow. The US has "made it crystal clear" that it would prefer Russia not supplying assistance to the regime, he said.

"What's happening there, everybody knows, is very, very dangerous. And what we don't want to see happen, the Russians don't want to see happen, is for Syria to erupt to the point where we may well find a regional war in the Middle East," Hagel said.

No date has yet been agreed for the international meeting, which appears to face growing obstacles. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met Putin in Russia on Friday and said the conference should take place as soon as possible.

But highlighting the diplomatic conundrum it poses, France spelled out explicitly on Friday that it would oppose any meeting if Assad's regional ally Iran were invited - contrary to the Russian position that Tehran should be part of a solution.

ESCALATION

The rebels and key Arab and Western backers will meet in Amman on Wednesday to discuss how to approach a conference. But it is also far from clear that Assad's opponents can forge a united front or agree to meet the president's representatives.

After months of diplomatic stalemate, Washington and Moscow have been pushed to convene the conference by the rising death toll and atrocities, signs of escalation across Syria's frontiers and suspicions that chemical arms may have been used.

Three weeks ago, Israeli air strikes near Damascus that were said to target Iranian weapons heading for Lebanon drove home the risk of the Syrian conflict spreading further afield. As much was true of bombings last week across the border in Turkey.

London's Financial Times became the latest Western media outlet to be targeted by online activists who support Assad.

Stories on the FT's website had their headlines replaced by "Hacked By Syrian Electronic Army" and messages on its Twitter feed read: "Do you want to know the reality of the Syrian 'Rebels?'" followed by a link to a video that purports to show members of the Nusra Front rebel group executing blindfolded and kneeling Syrian soldiers.

The video could not be independently verified.

JUNE MEETING?

A Western diplomat at the United Nations in New York said the target date for the peace conference was June 10-15, but it depended on the readiness of the Syrian parties. An alternative plan would be to hold an international conference and then have the Syrians meet at a later date when they are prepared.

The Russian arms transfer could intensify a push by some U.S. lawmakers for the United States to deepen its role in Syria, particularly after President Barack Obama's government acknowledged preliminary intelligence that Assad's forces likely used chemical weapons - something Obama has called a "red line".

"We can watch from the sidelines as the scales are tipped in Assad's favour, or protect U.S. national interests by supporting the armed opposition striving to build a new Syrian future," said Senate foreign relations committee chairman Robert Menendez.

But many U.S. officials have fears regarding which group will gain access to Western weapons. Obama said Thursday he would consider both diplomatic and military options to pressure Assad, but insisted U.S. action alone would not be enough to resolve the conflict.

Last Mod: 18 Mayıs 2013, 13:41
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