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Washington knocks Russia over air defense sale

White House says move to supply Damascus with S-300 anti-airstrike system will perpetuate conflict

White House press secretary Jay Carney. (photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
White House press secretary Jay Carney. (photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The White House on Tuesday panned Russia over its planned sale of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Damascus, saying that the move would help perpetuate the violence that has wracked Syria for over two years.

Press secretary Jay Carney also welcomed the European Union’s decision to lift the embargo on arming Syrian rebels, saying the Obama administration had always backed the Syrian opposition.

Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, Carney gave Russia a rare thwack over its announcement that it would go ahead with plans to arm the Syrian regime with S-300 batteries, giving Syrian president Bashar Assad one of the most advanced anti-plane and missile defense systems in the world.

“We’ve made clear in the past and made clear again our firm belief that providing arms to the Assad regime does not bring us closer to the political transition that Syria deserves,” he said.

Earlier Tuesday, Russia, which has been a strong supporter of the Syrian government, criticized the EU’s move toward arming the rebels and reconfirmed its anti-aircraft missile sale, saying the move was intended to prevent unnamed “hotheads” from inflaming the region.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers voted to allow an arms embargo over Syria expire, though members of the 27-nation bloc continued to express divisions over sending weapons to the rebels.

The White House, which has come under increasing pressure from members of Congress to arm the Syrian rebels, said it supported the Syrian opposition even as it pushed for peace talks being brokered together with Russia, planned for Geneva next month.

“[S]upport for the opposition is a track that we are pursuing even as we also work with the opposition in an effort to realize the Geneva Communique and bring about the political transition that is envisioned in it,” Carney said.

US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the Obama administration will continue to provide non-lethal assistance to the rebels and hasn’t made a decision on whether to arm them.

Ventrell too condemned Moscow’s decision not to drop plans to sell the advanced weapons to Syria. “We’re talking about a regime that’s willing to go to enormous lengths to use massive force against civilians, including Scud missiles and other types,” he said. “We condemn all support of arms to the regime.”

The confirmation of the sale of the S-300 system sent shockwaves through Jerusalem Tuesday, two weeks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had flown to Moscow and lobbied Russia to quash the deal.

Using unusually harsh language, Intelligence, International Relations and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told reporters the Russian decision to press on with the deal was an “odd” and unjustifiable move, which he said was “totally wrong” on moral and strategic grounds.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon also spoke against the planned transfer of the advanced weapons to Damascus. “The missiles are a threat,” he said, adding that at the moment the deal was moving at a slow pace. He said he knew for a fact that the missile systems had not yet been delivered, and “let’s hope it doesn’t happen. But if it does, we’ll know what to do.”

Carney also addressed US Senator John McCain’s recent visit to Syria, and acknowledged that the State Department was aware of the senator’s journey.

“We were aware, of course, that Senator McCain was going to make this trip,” Carney said.

Carney did not say if McCain was carrying messages from the Obama administration intended for the Syrian rebels.

The EU move late Monday lifting an arms embargo on Syria sparked broad political fallout within hours.

Analysts, however, said the EU’s move would have little immediate impact on the fighting.

In Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the EU’s decision “a manifestation of double standards” that will hurt prospects for the Geneva talks, which are expected to happen next month.

France and Britain, meanwhile, hope the new EU position can help prod the two sides to the negotiating table in Geneva. EU diplomats have said the two nations are considering providing equipment to the rebels.

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