Russia Weapons Sale to Syria Would Be Destabilizing, Kerry Says

The U.S. has expressed its concern to Russia about the sale of any advanced missile systems to Syria, which would be “destabilizing” for Israel’s security, Secretary of State John Kerry said.

“I think we’ve made it crystal clear we would prefer that Russia was not supplying assistance” to the Syrian regime in its war against opposition forces, Kerry said in Rome today. Kerry had lengthy talks with Russian leaders earlier this week in Moscow, where they agreed to try to push both sides in the Syrian conflict into peace talks.

As United Nations and European leaders said the U.S.- Russian agreement was a promising development, Israel has told the U.S. that a deal is imminent for Russia to sell S-300 air defense missile batteries to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Kerry didn’t comment on the impact of Syria’s potential acquisition of advanced ground-to-air missile systems on the balance of power in the two-year civil war or on the ability of outside nations such as the U.S. to intervene militarily to assist opposition forces.

The S-300 missile system would bolster Syria’s defenses, complicating efforts by outside powers to enforce a no-fly zone over the country and counteracting military assistance from U.S. allies to the rebels. Officials in the U.S. and Israel declined to comment on a potential arms sale.

The conflict has escalated with allegations of chemical weapons use by government and rebel forces and airstrikes by Israel on weapons caches that may have been destined for the anti-Israel Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

Chemical Weapons

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today in an interview with NBC News that “it is clear” Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons.

In London, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman today said Assad’s regime is probably responsible for any chemical weapons use in Syria.

“Our assessment is that chemical weapons use in Syria is very likely to have been initiated by the regime,” Jean-Christophe Gray told reporters in London. “We have no evidence to date of opposition use.”

Cameron, who is to meet tomorrow with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, told Parliament yesterday there is an “urgent need” for international negotiations on Syria. Cameron is scheduled to meet May 13 with President Barack Obama at the White House.

At a joint news conference in Rome with Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino, Kerry said the U.S. and Russia are together trying to “create a new dynamic” to get both sides in the Syrian conflict to cease hostilities and agree on establishing a transitional government. The United Nations says the war has claimed more than 70,000 lives since March 2011.

‘Good News’

The UN’s special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi has agreed to withdraw his planned resignation and stay on to try to broker the international peace conference proposed by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said today.

“This is welcome, good news” that the U.S. and Russia have “come forward with this initiative. We have now challenges, work ahead,” Eliasson told reporters in New York.

The U.S.-Russia initiative “is the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time,” Brahimi said in a statement yesterday.

Opposition View

So far, Syria’s opposition is spurning efforts to engage in talks with Assad or his close circle.

The Syrian National Coalition said any political solution “should start with the departure of Bashar al-Assad and the pillars of his regime,” according to a statement on its Facebook page that cast doubt on prospects for new talks.

Seeking to address the opposition’s concerns, Kerry said today in Rome that Assad won’t be part of any transitional government. Two days ago in Moscow, Kerry had agreed with Russia’s position that Assad’s resignation can’t be a precondition for talks, saying a leadership transition must be made by “mutual consent” of the current regime and the opposition.

Syria’s government said today it is ready to engage in talks, and said it believes Russia remains opposed to outside military intervention or interference in Syria’s affairs, according to the official news agency SANA. The “credibility” of American backing for the proposed talks depends on “working seriously with its allies to halt the violence and terrorism,” Syria’s foreign ministry said.

Laying Groundwork

Kerry today said the U.S. has already begun “productive” conversations with the opposition and other nations to prepare the ground for the U.S.-Russian initiative. U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, arrived in Istanbul yesterday to meet with opposition leaders in a bid to persuade them to participate.

Opposition officials expect that the U.S. will try to use the influence from friendly nations, such as Saudi Arabia, to get them to attend a conference where Assad and his government are represented, Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, told Al Arabiya TV yesterday. The starting point for any negotiation is Assad’s departure, he said.

Russia, whose ties with the Assad dynasty date to the Soviet era, has vetoed three European-drafted UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian government’s crackdown and threatening to impose economic sanctions. Russia has defended its actions, saying the opposition was equally to blame for the violence and that Western powers were seeking a Libya-style regime change.

In Geneva last year, Russia and anti-Assad nations agreed in principle to UN-brokered guidelines to bring the conflict to a close. Still, difficulties arose when it came down to details and bringing about a transition.

Kerry met May 7 with Lavrov and Putin amid calls from some Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress for American intervention in the civil war.

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Rome at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net; Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.