US, EU confront with Russia on Syria arms

US, EU confront with Russia on Syria arms

US, EU confront with Russia on Syria arms

Lithuania's Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius listens to Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague (R) at the start of an European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels May 27, 2013. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Washington and Brussels are at loggerheads with Moscow over the transfer of weapons to the warring sides in Syria’s two-year-old conflict, with the European Union effectively ending an arms embargo against rebels as the Kremlin pledged to maintain shipments to Damascus.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on May 28 that providing missiles to the government of President Bashar al-Assad would be a “stabilizing factor” aimed at deterring any foreign intervention in Syria hours after the EU decided to lift its embargo against arming Syrian rebels.

“We consider these supplies a stabilizing factor and believe such steps will deter some hotheads from considering scenarios that would turn the conflict international with the involvement of outside forces,” Ryabkov said in Moscow.

Ryabkov refused to divulge whether Russia had shipped any of the long-range S-300 air defense missile systems, but added that Moscow was not going to abandon the deal despite strong Western and Israeli criticism. The S-300 missiles have a range of up to 200 kilometers and the capability to track down and strike multiple targets simultaneously.

The EU agreed May 27 to lift its embargo against arming Syrian rebels, but no member state intends to send any arms in the coming months.

After a grueling 12 hours of talks in Brussels, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced the deal to lift the arms embargo against opposition militants, but a French official in Paris said that “this is a theoretical lifting of the embargo. In concrete terms, there will be no decision on any deliveries before Aug. 1.”

Such a delay will allow for a planned international peace conference on Syria next month that is being sponsored by the U.S. and Russia and which is expected to draw both the government and opposition figures.

The deal agreed in Brussels leaves the decision to supply arms to the rebels up to each nation. Ministers nonetheless vowed to stick to safeguards against misuse and to respect EU rules on arms exports.

Moscow, however, said the decision would “directly harm” peace efforts. “This directly harms the prospects of convening an international conference,” Ryabkov said.

The Syrian opposition, meanwhile, reacted cautiously to the EU decision, with Louay Safi, a spokesman for Syria’s main opposition National Coalition, telling Agence France-Presse: “Definitely it is a positive step, but we are afraid it could be too little, too late.”

Adding to the tension, Israel said the country “will know what to do” if Russia delivers anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. “The deliveries have not taken place, and I hope they do not. But if, by misfortune, they arrive in Syria, we will know what to do,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

Earlier this month, Israel launched air raids inside Syria targeting what sources said were arms destined for its arch foe, Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, whose fighters have entered the conflict alongside the Syrian army.

In Washington, a Senate panel voted last week overwhelmingly to send weapons to rebels fighting Syria’s government. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 15-3 for legislation that would send arms to “vetted” moderate members of the Syrian opposition, the first time U.S. lawmakers have approved such military action during the war.

The measure will now be considered by the full Senate, where a vocal group of legislators has been pushing for President Barack Obama to do more to help the rebels. Some lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns about whether sending arms risked putting powerful weapons into the wrong hands, including fighters with ties to al-Qaeda.