Russia has delivered ground-to-air missiles, claims Assad
Syrian president threatens to retaliate in event of further Israeli attacks
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad interviewed for Al-Manar TV, owned by the Hizbullah, in Damascus yesterday. Photograph: AP Photo/Sana
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad yesterday revealed that Russia has delivered advanced S-300 ground-to-air missiles to Syria. “The rest of the shipment will arrive soon,” he said.
He also said Syria would respond “immediately” to any fresh Israeli attack, presumably by firing S-300s which can reach Israel. He had previously threatened to retaliate against Israeli strikes “at the appropriate time.”
Israeli officials are seeking confirmation of the delivery. Defence minister Moshe Ya’alon had earlier suggested that Israel would destroy the missiles before they become operational. Experts argue that this could take some time while the US neither confirmed nor denied delivery.
A senior Israeli official said the EU decision to end the ban on arms sales to the rebels gave Russia a pretext to ship the missiles. He said the arrival of he weapons could “change the whole dynamic” of Israeli intervention in the Syrian conflict. Israel has three times bombed weapons in Syria it claimed were destined for the Lebanese Shia Hizbullah movement.
During his interview with Hizbullah’s Manar satellite channel, Dr Assad also said the Syrian army has won “major victories” against the rebels, tipping the “balance of power” in the government’s favour.
The government would attend the Geneva peace talks slated for next month but would submit any peace plan to a referendum, he said. He says he will stay in power until 2014 and will leave only if the Syrians want him to do so.
He played down the importance of the current battle at the strategic town of Qusayr, saying the campaigns in Damascus and Aleppo were far more important. Hizbullah fighters were involved in the Qusayr border area to defend “the resistance” to Israel from insurgents allied to Israel, he said.
In Istanbul the expatriate opposition Syrian National Coalition said it would boycott the projected US-Russian sponsored peace conference unless the international community intervened to lift the siege of Qusayr. Acting president George Sabra said the coalition would “not take part in any international conference or any such efforts as long as the militias of Iran and Hizbullah continue their invasion of Syria”.
The coalition said it would only attend the conference if Dr Assad was ousted within a fixed time frame and after the international community provided “binding international guarantees” that he would “not be a part of any settlement agreement”.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the coalition’s preconditions were “impracticable” and nobody should be issuing ultimatums. “The only thing that unites [the coalition] is the demand for . . . Assad’s immediate exit. But everyone, including our western partners, understands that this position is unrealistic,” he said.
Having made its position on the conference clear, the coalition also has, apparently, reneged for a second time on a commitment to enlarge its governing body by admitting 22 members of the liberal Union of Syrian Democrats led by veteran dissident Michel Kilo. Rebel factions in Syria have demanded 50 per cent of seats on its governing board, throwing expansion talks into confusion.
Meanwhile, the UN World Food programme is planning to boost operations in Syria to feed three million people in July, a million more than at present.