Uncredited, Associated Press
BEIRUT — Syria has received the first shipment of Russian missiles that are part of a more sophisticated air defense system, President Bashar Assad told Lebanon's Hezbollah-owned TV channel, according to remarks released by the station Thursday.
Bashar Assad's comment on the arrival of the long-range S-300 air defense missiles in Syria could further ratchet up tensions in the region and undermine efforts to hold U.N.-sponsored talks with Syria's warring sides.
Israel's defense chief, Moshe Yaalon, said earlier this week that Russia's plan to supply Syria with the weapons was a threat and that Israel was prepared to use force to stop the delivery.
The Al-Manar TV, owned by the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group, released Assad's comments on the Russian missiles in print, through its breaking news service Thursday morning.
"Syria has received the first shipment of Russian anti-aircraft S-300 rockets," the TV quoted Assad as saying. The Syrian leader added: "All our agreements with Russia will be implemented and parts of them have already been implemented."
An official at the station confirmed to The Associated Press that the remarks were from the exclusive interview the TV was to air in full later Thursday.
The shipment of the missiles, if confirmed, comes just days after the European Union lifted an arms embargo on Syria, paving way for individual countries of the 27-member bloc to send weapons to rebels fighting to topple Assad's regime.
The developments raise fears of an arms race — not just between Assad's forces and the opposition fighters battling to topple his regime, but also in the wider Middle East.
Israel has carried out several airstrikes in Syria in recent months that are believed to have destroyed weapon shipments bound for Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group that along with Iran and Russia is a staunch Assad ally. It is not clear whether Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace in these attacks.
With the Russian missiles in Syria's possession, the Israeli air force's ability to strike inside the Arab country could be limited since the S-300s would expand Syria's capabilities, allowing it to counter airstrikes launched from foreign airspace as well.
The S-300s have a range of up to 200 kilometers (125 miles) and the capability to track and strike multiple targets simultaneously. Syria already possesses Russian-made air defenses, and Israel is believed to have used long-distance bombs fired from Israeli or Lebanese airspace.
When Israeli warplanes struck near the capital of Damascus, targeting purported Iranian missiles intended for Hezbollah earlier this month, Syria did not respond.
But on Wednesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV that Damascus "will retaliate immediately" if Israel strikes Syrian soil again.
It was the regime's most serious warning to Israel since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011 but it was not clear if there was a link between al-Moallem's remark and the Russian shipment.
Israel has long lobbied Moscow over the planned sale of S-300 air-defense missiles to Syria. However, on Tuesday, Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said his government remained committed to the deal.
Monday's decision by the EU to lift the arms embargo opened the possibility for individual countries to send weapons to Assad's outgunned opponents, though there was no indication any single European country would send lethal weapons to the rebels anytime soon.
Britain and France, the main military powers in the EU, had pushed for the lifting of the embargo, arguing that Europe's threat of arming the rebels would force Assad to negotiate in good faith.
Russia harshly criticized Europe's decision, saying it undercuts international efforts to bring the opposing sides in Syrian conflict together for a peace conference.
There was no immediate reaction from Israel on the Russian shipment but Silvan Shalom, a Cabinet minister from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party, told Israel Radio that the Jewish state will "take actions" to make sure advanced weapons don't reach rogue groups.
Prospects for convening a peace conference on Syria were further thrown in doubt after al-Moallem said Wednesday that Assad intends to remain Syria's president at least until elections in 2014 and might run for another term.
The Syrian foreign minister also said any deal reached in eventual talks with the opposition would have to be put to a referendum, introducing a new condition that could complicate efforts by the U.S. and Russia to bring the two sides together in Geneva, possibly next month.
While Syria has said that it will "in principle" attend the conference, the fractured political opposition has not yet announced whether it will attend or not, despite more than a week of meetings in Turkey to devise a strategy for the Geneva talks.
Leading opposition members have said they would only attend the conference if Assad's departure from power tops the agenda, a demand on which sponsors Russia and the U.S. appear to disagree.
In Syria, Assad's forces backed by Hezbollah fighters fought pockets of resistance in the strategic town of Qusair near the border with Lebanon. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government controls most of Qusair following a fierce, 12-day battle with opposition forces.
Thursday's sporadic clashed came as government troops were mopping up in northern and western parts of Qusair, said the Observatory, which relies on information from a network of activists on the ground.
The Syrian army on Wednesday took control of nearby Dabaa air base, dealing a major blow to the rebels in Qusair, an overwhelmingly Sunni town in western part of the country that has been controlled by the opposition since early last year.
The government launched an offensive on Qusair on May 19 and Hezbollah militants joined the battle, drawing the Lebanese Shiite group deep into the civil war next door.
More than 70,000 people have been killed in the 26-months-old Syrian conflict that has had increasingly sectarian overtones. Members of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority dominate the rebel ranks and Assad's regime is mostly made up of Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.
Both sides in the conflict value Qusair, which lies along a land corridor linking two Assad's strongholds, the capital of Damascus and an area along the Mediterranean coast that is the Alawite heartland. For the rebels, holding the town means protecting their supply line to Lebanon, just 10 kilometers (six miles) away.
Also Thursday, the opposition coalition said more than 1,000 wounded in the government offensive in Qusair need to be evacuated for medical treatment.
The opposition said the town hospitals lack doctors and medical supplies to treat those injured and trapped there.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed.
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