Syria's president claims Russian arms are already arriving

President Bashar al-Assad said his regime has already received the first shipment of Russian anti-aircraft S-300 rockets. If true, prospects are dimmer for a US-Russia peace initiative.

A Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile system is on display in an undisclosed location in Russia. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview taped on Tuesday that his government had received the first shipment of S-300 missiles, despite Western requests that Russia stop the weapons sale.

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Russia has fulfilled a partial shipment of advanced defense missiles to Syria, President Bashar al-Assad reportedly stated in an interview with a Lebanese news channel set to be aired in full today. The revelation could jeopardize an already fragile US-Russia-sponsored peace conference scheduled for the coming weeks, and increase the threat of Syria’s violence spreading into neighboring countries.

"Syria has received the first shipment of Russian anti-aircraft S-300 rockets," Mr. Assad told Lebanese TV station Al Manar in an interview taped on Tuesday, according to The New York Times. "The rest of the shipment will arrive soon."

Russia said it would consider delivering defense missiles to Syria after the European Union decided this week to let its Syrian arms embargo lapse on June 1, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

The US, Israel, and France have all issued calls to Russia to stop the delivery of the missiles, Reuters reports. And today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “We must prepare defensively and offensively for the era of renewed war.”

There is no confirmation the missiles have been delivered, and on Tuesday, when the interview was reportedly recorded, Israel’s defense minister said no missiles had yet been delivered from Russia, reports the Times.

The Washington Post obtained a March weapons request from Syria to Moscow, seeking a laundry list of arms including “[t]wenty-thousand Kalashnikov assault rifles and 20 million rounds of ammunition. Machine guns. Grenade launchers and grenades. Sniper rifles with night-vision sights,” according to the Post.

The Syrian army general asked for a price quote “in the shortest possible time.” He closed with kind regards to Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms exporter.

The flow of arms to Syria, including the advanced S-300 missile defense batteries that Moscow said this week it would supply, continues amid hopes that an international conference, jointly proposed by the United States and Russia, will lead to a negotiated political settlement of Syria’s civil war.

The BBC reports another excerpt from President Assad’s interview with Hezbollah-backed Al Manar where he states, “The Syrian army has scored major victories against armed rebels on the ground and the balance of power is now with the Syrian army."

Some analysts say Assad’s account of a missile delivery is little more than a bluff. Assad’s “statement may be a ruse to boost his credentials of still being a leader of Syria,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai told Bloomberg.

The peace conference, which many hoped to see launch in Geneva this month, is looking more fraught by the day. In addition to increased tensions over the EU arms embargo both the Syrian government and opposition say the other’s prerequisites for discussing peace are unacceptable. The Times reports:

On Wednesday, the Syrian opposition said that Mr. Assad’s departure is a prerequisite to talks — a condition his government and Russia reject — while Syria’s foreign minister said that Mr. Assad would stay on at least until 2014 and might seek re-election and that any peace agreement would have to be approved by a referendum.

Mr. Assad’s statements — and the choice of the Hezbollah channel to deliver them — added to the confrontational atmosphere….

Syrian rebel commanders have also issued aggressive statements in recent days, threatening to attack Hezbollah and even the Lebanese Army inside Lebanon if Hezbollah’s intervention is not halted.

Late Wednesday, Lebanon’s president, Michel Suleiman, a political ally of Hezbollah, issued an unusual statement calling on Hezbollah to pull out of Syria for the sake of Lebanese security and the integrity of the group’s primary mission, fighting Israel.

The Chicago Tribune wrote an op-ed today on the importance of leverage in risky negotiations like Syria, noting that Assad and his allies have “raised the ante” in the lead-up to the Geneva peace conference:

The U.S. and its allies once thought that Assad only needed a sharp nudge from power. That the mounting toll of more than 70,000 deaths — many civilians — would topple the regime. That the rebels would unite around a leader. That all those refugee families fleeing their homes and pouring into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq would focus the world's attention on a solution.

But the bloody stalemate continues. If anything, Assad is more secure now than in past months. His army has launched offensives against rebel strongholds. His allies are stepping up to help. The regime's foes — in Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere — are funneling arms and money to the rebels….

The U.S. may wait to see what happens at the Geneva peace conference, assuming it is held, before making more moves to bolster the rebels. But the conference will be a dud for the U.S. if Assad and his allies hold all the leverage.

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