US army chief slams Russia for arming, emboldening Assad

Dempsey calls Moscow’s insistence on providing Syria with advanced arms ‘very unfortunate’; Hagel says all sides must work to avoid a descent into ‘regional war’

US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and IDF chief Benny Gantz look toward Syria while visiting Mount Hermon in October 2012. (photo credit:DOD/D. Myles Cullen)
US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and IDF chief Benny Gantz look toward Syria while visiting Mount Hermon in October 2012. (photo credit:DOD/D. Myles Cullen)

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, on Friday slammed Russia for emboldening President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria by continuing to supply it with advanced weapons.

“It’s at the very least an unfortunate decision that will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering, so it’s ill-timed and very unfortunate,” Dempsey told reporters at the Pentagon, after Moscow’s leaders made plain that they would go on arming Assad.

Dempsey also said that the US could deal with Syria’s current arsenal of weapons, and that even the Russian S-300 air-defense systems, if supplied, would not be impossible “to overcome.”

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also urged Russia to rethink its military aid Friday, saying that the US and Russia both wanted to stabilize Syria after more than two years of civil war but that the Kremlin’s military support makes the situation even more dangerous.

“What we don’t want to see happen, the Russians don’t want to see happen, is for Syria to erupt to the point where we may well find a regional war in the Middle East,” Hagel said.

“So we continue to work with the Russians on their interests and everything we can do to convince the powers that are involved in the region to be careful with escalation of military options and equipment,” he said, adding that the US was planning for every military contingency.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow would proceed with its planned delivery of the highly sophisticated S-300 air-defense system to Syria, despite pleas from Israel not to do so and a reported warning by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the delivery could lead to war. According to a report published in the New York Times Thursday, Russia has also sent advanced antiship cruise missiles to bolster Assad’s forces.

At a joint press conference with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Lavrov said Friday that the Russian sales to Assad do not breach international law and were no secret. “I don’t know understand why the media is making a fuss about this,” he said.

Both sets of missiles would only add to the administration’s concerns as it evaluates a range of options, including military ones, to break the stalemate in Syria’s civil war and respond to evidence that Assad’s forces used small amounts of chemical weapons in two attacks in March. US President Barack Obama previously declared chemical weapons use his “red line” for a more forceful American intervention, though Secretary of State John Kerry and other US officials have since suggested that no such step would be taken while new efforts to negotiate Assad’s departure from power continue.

The cruise missiles and the new surface-to-air batteries would significantly upgrade the Assad regime’s capacity to target manned planes, drones, and incoming missiles.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier Friday that the US was aware of no “new shipments” of weapons to Assad.

Dempsey warned specifically about the S-300 surface-to-air missiles, saying they provide Syria with defenses at higher altitude and longer range, and with better tracking capability.

“It pushes the standoff distance a little more, increases risk, but not impossible to overcome,” he told reporters. “What I really worry about is that Assad will decide that since he’s got these systems, he’s somehow safer and more prone to a miscalculation.”

On Tuesday, Netanyahu traveled to Russia and held a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to convince him to cancel shipments of the S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria. Netanyahu reportedly warned Putin that Moscow’s sale could push the Middle East into war.

But Lavrov declared on Thursday that, while Moscow was “not signing any new deals,” it would honor existing contracts with Syria, including for the air-defense systems. “We’ve already carried out some of the deal,” Lavrov said, “and we will carry the rest of it out in full.”

A failure to honor signed contracts, Lavrov added in a television interview, would “harm the credibility” of Russia in other arms-sales contracts.

An Israeli source told Channel 2 on Friday night that Israel had “made clear” that it would not allow advanced weaponry to be transferred from Syria to Hezbollah.

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