Lavrov Plays Down Reports of New Missile Deliveries to Syria

MOSCOW, May 17 (RIA Novosti) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday responded to a New York Times report that Russia has sent advanced antiship cruise missiles to war-torn Syria by saying that Russian arms deliveries do not change the balance of power, are fully legal and take place under existing contracts.

Citing unidentified American officials, The New York Times on Thursday reported that Russian arms supplies to Syria included Yakhonts missiles upgraded with advanced radar systems.

Military analysts told the paper that these upgraded weapons would help Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government prevent foreign forces from supplying the country’s opposition by sea, and counter any future attempts to impose a naval embargo or no-fly zone.

The missiles could also reportedly be used against airstrikes, which have been cited as a form of international intervention, as the civil war raging in Syria shows no sign of abating.

Russia has previously supplied Syria with Yakhonts missiles, but The New York Times cited officials as saying that the most recent shipment contained missiles with a more advanced guidance system than those in previous deliveries.

“I do not understand why the media is trying to sensationalize this,” Lavrov said in response to a journalist’s question on the latest weapons supply reports during a press conference with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday.

Lavrov reiterated that Russian arms deliveries to Syria take place under existing contracts and are fully within the law. He also said that the supplies will not change the balance of power in the conflict.

Russia’s weapons sales to Assad’s regime have already attracted criticism from other countries, in particular the US and Israel, with the latter fearing that weapons could be passed on to the Hezbollah Islamic militant group in neighboring Lebanon and used against it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Syria and the Middle East following media reports that Russia planned to supply advanced S-300 air defense missile systems to Syria.

Israeli media reported that Netanyahu urged Russian President Vladimir Putin not to deliver the systems, warning that it could push the Middle East into war.

Last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that “the [S-300] missiles are potentially destabilizing with respect to the state of Israel,” and added that the US had made it “crystal clear that we would prefer that Russia is not supplying assistance.”

Russia, however, has insisted that any arms deliveries it makes to Syria are legal under international law, and that it is not supplying the country with offensive weapons that can be used to kill civilians.

Syria was the largest importer of Russian arms in the Middle East in 2011, Reuters reported in February 2012.

Talks between the UN Secretary General, Putin and Lavrov in the southern Russian resort of Sochi on Friday also focused on the situation in Syria, where the civil war has killed at least 80,000 people, according to UN figures.

The UN General Assembly on Wednesday approved a non-binding resolution that calls for an urgent end to the violence through political transition and condemns the Syrian government’s increased use of heavy weapons.

Russia slammed the resolution as unbalanced in favor of the rebels and said it was “irresponsible” to support it.

Russia and China, which also opposed Wednesday’s resolution, have faced widespread condemnation over their refusal to approve UN sanctions against Assad’s regime.

Moscow has repeatedly stated it has no interest in seeing Assad remain in power, but is concerned that unilateral sanctions might create a power vacuum that would lead to more violence.

During Kerry’s visit to Russia earlier this month, Moscow and Washington agreed to convene international talks on Syria that will include representatives of the key parties to the conflict.

The conference, expected to be held at the beginning of next month, will be aimed at facilitating a solution to the crisis through political dialogue.

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