U.S. Asks Russia to Avoid Unsettling Syrian Missile Deal

The U.S. has told Russia that sales of advanced missile systems to Syria 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 yesterday in Rome. He had lengthy talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister this week in Moscow, where Kerry expressed his misgivings and they agreed to try to push both sides in the Syrian conflict into peace talks.

While 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 effect on the balance of power in the two-year civil war if Syria acquires advanced ground-to-air missile systems or on the potential for outside nations such as the U.S. to intervene militarily to assist opposition forces.

The S-300 missiles 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. Israeli officials in Washington and Israel declined to comment on a potential arms sale.

Chemical Weapons

The Syrian conflict has escalated over the past month with charges of chemical weapons use by government and rebel forces and Israeli airstrikes on caches of weapons near Damascus that may have been bound for the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

Hassan Nasrallah, the militant movement’s leader in Lebanon, said yesterday that Syria may supply the group with “game-changing” weapons. Israel regards Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and has said it won’t allow it to obtain advanced weapons.

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

In London, Jean-Christophe Gray, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman, said yesterday that the Assad government 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,” Gray told reporters. “We have no evidence to date of opposition use.”

‘Urgent Need’

Cameron, who is to meet today with Putin in Sochi, told Parliament May 8 there is an “urgent need” for international negotiations on Syria. Cameron is set to meet President Barack Obama at the White House May 13.

At a joint news briefing 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 UN has said the war has claimed more than 70,000 lives since March 2011.

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

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

The U.S.-Russia effort “is the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time,” Brahimi said May 8 in a statement.

Opposition View

So far, Syria’s opposition leaders are spurning efforts to persuade them 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.com web page.

Seeking to address the opposition’s concerns, Kerry said yesterday in Rome that Assad wouldn’t be part of any transitional government. On May 7 in Moscow, Kerry agreed with Russia’s position that Assad’s resignation can’t be a precondition for talks, saying a leadership transition must occur by “mutual consent” of the opposing sides.

Syria’s government said yesterday it is ready to engage in talks, and said it believes Russia remains opposed to outside military intervention or interference in Syrian affairs, according to SANA, the official news agency based in Damascus. The “credibility” of U.S. 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 yesterday 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 May 8 to try to persuade opposition leaders 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 or his government is represented, Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, told Al Arabiya TV May 8. The starting point for any negotiation is Assad’s departure, he said.

Russia, whose ties to the Assad dynasty date to the Soviet era, has vetoed three European-drafted UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian government’s crackdown on opponents 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 end the conflict. Difficulties arose over details and getting the two sides to sit down to negotiate a transition.

Kerry met May 7 with Lavrov and Putin amid calls from some congressional Democrats and Republicans for America to intervene in the civil war.

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