Russia defends its weapons contracts with Syria

UN secretary general meets Russian president as Moscow says it is operating within international law in supplying the Assad regime with defence systems.

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GAZIANTEP, TURKEY // The UN chief Ban Ki-moon and Russian president Vladimir Putin discussed the growing crisis in Syria yesterday, amid increasing concerns over Moscow supplying advanced weapons - including supersonic cruise missiles - to President Bashar Al Assad.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who met the UN secretary general earlier in the day, said he was baffled by continued interest in Moscow's arms deals with the Syrian regime.
"I do not understand why the media is trying to create a sensation out of this," Mr Lavrov said.
"We have not hidden that we supply weapons to Syria under signed contracts, without violating any international agreements, or our own legislation.
"We are first and foremost supplying defence weapons related to air defence."
On Thursday, unidentified US officials were quoted by The New York Times as saying Russia had recently sent advanced anti-ship missiles to Damascus, capable of sinking vessels nearly 300 kilometres away.
Russia has also remained somewhat enigmatic about supplies of the much-vaunted S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Syria.
This month, when asked if Moscow would give the S-300 to Damascus, Mr Lavrov said Russia was not thinking of selling, but had already concluded a sale.
"Russia is not planning to sell. Russia already sold them a long time ago, he said last Friday. "It has signed the contracts and is completing deliveries, in line with the agreed contracts, of equipment which is anti-aircraft technology."
But he did not specify if that deal related to the S-300 or another less advanced system.
Israeli officials have been cited in media reports this month as saying Damascus made payments towards four S-300 batteries and 144 missiles. In an effort to block any sale, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Mr Putin in Russia on Tuesday. No public announcement relating to weapons was made after the meeting by either leader.
Israel has carried out a series of airstrikes inside Syria, all apparently designed to stop weapons falling into the hands of Hizbollah, the Lebanese militant group that has been fighting alongside Mr Al Assad's forces. Israeli jets would find it more difficult to stage such attacks if Syrian air defences were bolstered.
S-300s would also add to the problems of enforcing a no fly zone over Syria, the prospect of which was raised by Turkish prime minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan yesterday, despite Western states showing no intention of wanting to putting one in place .
"It is not a decision that could be taken between the United States and Turkey. It is something that would have to come through the U.N. Security Council," Mr Erdogan said.
He also backed Beijing and Moscow being involved in planned peace talks.
Russia, a key ally to the Syrian regime and its principal weapons supplier, has been at the centre of a recent flurry of diplomatic activity. The American secretary of state John Kerry and British prime minister David Cameron have also held meetings with senior Russian officials this month.
The US-Russian talks resulted in an agreement to hold a peace conference involving the Syrian opposition and regime, although no date has yet been set.
Mr Ban's talks with Mr Lavrov and Mr Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi yesterday were part of an effort to ensure that the conference happens quickly. The proposed negotiations have been dubbed "Geneva 2" because they are to be held in the Swiss city and represent a follow-up to a stillborn deal brokered by the then UN-special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, last June in the same location.
That vaguely worded agreement collapsed immediately over differing interpretations as to what it actually meant. The US, a backer of anti-regime factions, said the agreement made it clear Mr Al Assad would have to step down, while Russia and Damascus insisted it contained no such requirement.
Almost a year has passed since that deal was done, with conditions in Syria rapidly worsening. A year ago, almost 20,000 people were estimated killed in the uprising and the regime's violent suppression of dissent. Now the death toll stands at more than 94,000, according to the most recent estimate of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one of the few groups tracking fatalities.
Extremism and brutal sectarianism within regime and opposition factions has grown; millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes; and billions of dollars worth of damage had been done to national infrastructure and important historical sites.
What began as a peaceful, pro-democracy uprising - met with lethal force by an intransigent autocratic regime - has now morphed into a conflict pitting regional and international powers against one another in a proxy war that has already begun to spill over Syrian borders.
The degree of violence unleashed in response to the uprising was underlined in a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report yesterday, after it gained rare access to regime detention and torture cells in Raqqa, a Syrian province now held by rebel forces.
"The documents, prison cells, interrogation rooms, and torture devices we saw in the government's security facilities are consistent with the torture former detainees have described to us," said Nadim Houry, HRW's deputy Middle East director.
It remains unclear exactly who will take part in the planned Geneva 2 talks, with both Mr Al Assad and his opponents repeatedly ruling out negotiations with one another.
There is also little indication that compromise is now possible. Positions on both sides have hardened in the past year, and neither Mr Al Assad nor the rebels have been able to make decisive gains on the battlefield.
Moscow has also said it wants Iran present at the Geneva 2 summit. Tehran is another major backer of Mr Al Assad, and of Hizbollah.
Supporters of the Syrian opposition in Washington and the Arab Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, have previously rejected an Iranian role in talks.
France yesterday repeated it support of that position, saying it would oppose a peace conference if Tehran were invited to attend.
The US and Europe have thus far refrained from openly supplying anti-regime rebels with offensive weapons, but Washington, London and Paris have all suggested that policy is under review and may change if Mr Al Assad does not take part in serious negotiations about a handover of power.