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Syria's Assad talks tough

by BASSEM MROUE Associated Press on May 31, 2013 10:00 AM

BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview broadcast Thursday that he is “confident in victory” in his country’s civil war, and he warned that Damascus would retaliate for any future Israeli airstrike on his territory.

Assad also told the Lebanese TV station Al-Manar that Russia has fulfilled some of its weapons contracts recently, but he was vague on whether this included advanced S-300 air defense systems.

The comments were in line with a forceful and confident message the regime has been sending in recent days, even as the international community attempts to launch a peace conference in Geneva, possibly next month. The strong tone coincided with recent military victories in battles with armed rebels trying to topple him.

The interview was broadcast as Syria’s main political opposition group appeared to fall into growing disarray.

The international community had hoped the two sides would start talks on a political transition. However, the opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said earlier Thursday that it would not attend a conference, linking the decision to a regime offensive on the western Syrian town of Qusair and claiming that hundreds of wounded people were trapped there.

Meanwhile, Russia’s MiG aircraft maker said today it plans to sign a new agreement to ship at least 10 fighter jets to Syria, a move that comes amid international criticism of earlier Russian weapons deals with Assad’s regime.

MiG’s director general, Sergei Korotkov, said a Syrian delegation was in Moscow to discuss the details of a new contract for the delivery of MiG-29 M/M2 fighters. In remarks carried by Russian news agencies, he said Syria wants to buy “more than 10” such fighters, but wouldn’t give the exact number.

The significance of his comments was unclear. A MiG spokesman wouldn’t comment on Korotkov’s statement, and the MiG chief could be referring to a deal the company previously negotiated with Syria that apparently has been put on hold amid Syria’s brutal two-year civil war.

Moscow has shipped billions of dollars’ worth of missiles, combat jets, tanks, artillery and other military gear to Syria over more than four decades. Syria now is Russia’s last remaining ally in the Middle East and hosts the only naval base Moscow has outside the former Soviet Union.

Russia has shielded Assad from U.N. sanctions and has continued to provide his regime with weapons despite the uprising against him that began in March 2011.

Russian media reports say Syria placed an order a few years ago for 12 MiG-29 M2 fighters with an option of buying another 12. The Stockholm Peace Research Institute also has reported that Russia planned to provide Syria with 24 of the aircraft.

The MiG-29 M2 is an advanced version of the MiG-29 twin-engine fighter jet, which has been a mainstay of the Soviet and Russian air force since mid-1980s. Syria had about 20 fighters of the original make among scores of other Soviet- and Russian-built aircraft.

Russia has said it’s only providing Assad with weapons intended to protect Syria from a foreign invasion, such as air defense missile systems, and is not delivering weapons that could be used in the civil war.

But the delivery of MiGs would contradict that claim and expose Russia to global criticism, so the Kremlin might think twice before giving the go-ahead.

Assad, who appeared animated and gestured frequently in Thursday’s TV interview, said he has been confident from the start of the conflict more than two years ago that he would be able to defeat his opponents.

“Regarding my confidence about victory, had we not had this confidence, we wouldn’t have been able to fight in this battle for two years, facing an international attack,” he said. Assad portrayed the battle to unseat him as a “world war against Syria and the resistance” — a reference to the Lebanese Hezbollah, a close ally.

“We are confident and sure about victory, and I confirm that Syria will stay as it was,” he said, “but even more than before, in supporting resistance fighters in all the Arab world.”

Assad has said he would stay in power at least until elections scheduled in 2014, but he went further in the interview, saying he “will not hesitate to run again” if the Syrian people want him to do so.

Taking a tough line, he also warned that Syria would strike back hard against any future Israeli airstrike.

Earlier this month, Israel had struck near Damascus, targeting suspected shipments of advanced weapons purportedly intended for Hezbollah. Syria did not respond at the time.

Assad said he has informed other countries that Syria would respond next time. “If we are going to retaliate against Israel, this retaliation should be a strategic response,” he said.

Russia’s S-300 missiles would significantly boost Syria’s air defenses and are seen as a game-changer, but Assad was unclear whether Syria has received a first shipment.

Earlier Thursday, Al-Manar had sent text messages to reporters with what it said was an excerpt from the interview.

The station quoted Assad as saying Syria had received a first shipment of such missiles. The Associated Press called Al-Manar after receiving the text message, and an official at the station said the message had been sent based on Assad’s comments.

In the interview, Assad was asked about the S-300s, but his answer was general.

He said Russia’s weapons shipments are not linked to the Syrian conflict. “We have been negotiating with them about different types of weapons for years, and Russia is committed to Syria to implement these contracts,” he said.

“All we have agreed on with Russia will be implemented and some of it has been implemented recently, and we and the Russians continue to implement these contracts,” he said.

Earlier this week, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel considered the S-300s in Syrian hands a threat and signaled it was prepared to use force to stop delivery. Israel had no comment Thursday.

The S-300s have a range of up to 125 miles and can track and strike multiple targets at once. Syria already possesses Russian-made air defenses.

The U.S. and Israel had urged Russia to cancel the sale, but Russia rejected the appeals.

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