Russia to send Syria air defense system to deter ‘hotheads’


Russia will deliver an advanced air defense system to the Syrian government despite Western opposition because it will help deter “hotheads” who back foreign intervention, a senior Russian official said on Tuesday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also accused the European Union of “throwing fuel on the fire” by letting its arms embargo on Syrian expire, saying it would complicate efforts to arrange an international peace conference.

His remarks toughened Russia's defiance of the United States, France and Israel over the planned sale of precision S-300 missile systems to President Bashar al-Assad's government, which is battling a Western and Gulf Arab-backed insurgency.

“We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads … from exploring scenarios in which this conflict could be given an international character with participation of outside forces, to whom this idea is not foreign,” he told a news conference.

Western experts say the air defense system could significantly boost Syria's ability to stave off outside intervention in the more than two-year civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people.

The S-300s can intercept manned aircraft and guided missiles and their delivery would improve Assad's government's chances of holding out in Damascus. Western nations say the Russian arms deliveries could increase tension and encourage Assad.

Moscow is standing firm on the sale, despite a trip to Russia by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month in which he pleaded with President Vladimir Putin to halt the delivery, and a veiled warning of a military response by Israel.

“I can say that the shipments are not on their way yet,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday at a conference near Tel Aviv. “I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do.”

POWERFUL ALLY

Russia has sent anti-missile defense systems to Syria before, but says it has not sent offensive weapons or arms that can be used against the anti-government forces. A source close to Russia's state arms exporter said a contract to supply Syria with fighter jets had been suspended.

Ryabkov was unable to confirm whether S-300s had already been delivered but said “we will not disavow them”.

Russia has been Assad's most powerful ally during the conflict, opposing sanctions and blocking, with China, three Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to pressure the government to stop fighting.

Moscow opposes military intervention or arming Syrian rebels and defends its right to deliver arms to Assad's government.

Ryabkov said the failure by the EU to renew its arms embargo on Syria at a meeting on Monday would undermine the chances for peace talks which Moscow and Washington are trying to organize.

“The European Union is essentially throwing fuel on the fire in Syria,” he said of the EU compromise decision which will allow EU states to supply arms to the rebels if they wish.

His comments were echoed by Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who also criticised a visit to Syria on Monday by U.S. Senator John McCain, who met rebels fighting Assad's government.

Britain and France, which opposed renewing the arms embargo, have made clear they reserve the right to send arms immediately, despite an agreement by European countries to put off potential deliveries until August 1, but have made no decisions yet.

A senior French official said the S-300 was brought up at talks between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Monday.

“Obviously it poses a huge problem for us because if they deliver these weapons – they are ground-to-air missiles – and if we were to set up air corridors, then you can see the contradiction between the two,” the official said.

Israel says Russian weapons sent to Syria could end up in the hands of its enemy, Iran, or the Lebanese Hezbollah group.

Israeli Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said the S-300 could reach deep into the Jewish state and threaten flights over its main commercial airport near Tel Aviv.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Alison Williams

Israel strikes Syria, says its targeting Hezbollah arms


Israeli jets devastated Syrian targets near Damascus on Sunday in a heavy overnight air raid that Western and Israeli officials called a new strike on Iranian missiles bound for Lebanon's Hezbollah.

As Syria's two-year-old civil war veered into the potentially atomic arena of Iran's confrontation with Israel and the West over its nuclear program, people were woken in the Syrian capital by explosions that shook the ground like an earthquake and sent pillars of flame high into the night sky.

“Night turned into day,” one man told Reuters from his home at Hameh, near one of the targets, the Jamraya military base.

But for all the angry rhetoric in response from Tehran and from the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it was unclear whether the second such raid in 48 hours would elicit any greater reaction than an Israeli attack in the same area in January, which was followed by little evident change.

The Syrian government accused Israel of effectively helping al Qaeda Islamist “terrorists” and said the strikes “open the door to all possibilities”; but Israeli officials said that, as in January, they were calculating Assad would not pick a fight with a well-armed neighbor while facing defeat at home.

Denying it was weighing in on the rebel side on behalf of Washington – which opposes Assad but is hesitating to intervene – officials said Israel was pursuing its own conflict, not with Syria but with Iran, and was acting to prevent Iran's Hezbollah allies receiving missiles that might strike Tel Aviv if Israel made good on threats to attack Tehran's nuclear program.

What Israel was not doing, they stressed, was getting drawn into a debate that has raged in the United States lately of whether the alleged use of poison gas by Assad's forces should prompt the West finally to give military backing to oust him.

Israel was not taking sides in a civil war that has pitted Assad's government, a dour but mostly toothless adversary for nearly 40 years, against Sunni rebels, some of them Islamist radicals, who might one day turn Syria's armory against the Jewish state.

It is a mark of how two years of killing in which at least 70,000 Syrians have died has not only inflamed a wider, regional confrontation between Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni Arabs, some of them close Western allies, but have also left Israel and Western powers scrambling to reassess where their interests lie.

Egypt, the most populous Arab state and flagship of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts where elected Islamists have replaced a Western-backed autocrat, has no love for Assad. But on Sunday it condemned Israel's air strikes as a breach of international law that “made the situation more complicated”.

ROCKETS TARGETED

Israel does not confirm such missions explicitly – a policy it says is intended to avoid provoking reprisals. But an Israeli official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the strikes were carried out by its forces, as was a raid early on Friday that U.S. President Barack Obama said had been justified.

A Western intelligence source told Reuters: “In last night's attack, as in the previous one, what was attacked were stores of Fateh-110 missiles that were in transit from Iran to Hezbollah.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his aim for Israel was to “guarantee its future” – language he has used to warn of a willingness to attack Iran's nuclear sites, even in defiance of U.S. advice, as well as to deny Hezbollah heavier weapons.

He later flew to China on a scheduled trip, projecting confidence there would be no major escalation – though Israel has reinforced its anti-missile batteries in the north.

Syrian state television said bombing at a military research facility at Jamraya and two other sites caused “many civilian casualties and widespread damage”, but it gave no details. The Jamraya compound was also a target for Israel on January 30.

Hezbollah's Al-Manar television showed a flattened building spread over the size of a football pitch, with smoke rising from rubble containing shell fragments. It did not identify it.

Syrian state television quoted a letter from the foreign minister to the United Nations saying: “The blatant Israeli aggression has the aim to provide direct military support to the terrorist groups after they failed to control territory.”

Obama defended Israel's right to block “terrorist organizations like Hezbollah” from acquiring weapons after Friday's raid, and a White House spokesman said on Sunday: “The president many times has talked about his view that Israel, as a sovereign government, has the right to take the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people.”

It was unclear that Israel had sought U.S. approval for the strikes, although the White House spokesman said: “The close coordination between the Obama administration, the United States of America, is ongoing with the Israeli government.”

Obama has in recent years worked to hold back Netanyahu from making good on threats to hit facilities where he says Iran, despite its denials, is working to develop a nuclear weapon.

On Sunday, some Israeli officials highlighted Obama's reluctance to be drawn into new conflict in the Middle East to explain Israel's need for independent action.

Syria restricts access to independent journalists. Its state media said Israeli aircraft struck three places between Damascus and the nearby Lebanese border. The city also lies barely 50 km (30 miles) from Israeli positions on the occupied Golan Heights.

Tehran, which has long backed Assad, whose Alawite minority has religious ties to Shi'ite Islam, denied the attack was on armaments for Lebanon and called for nations to stand firm against Israel. A senior Iranian commander was quoted, however, as saying Syria's armed forces were able to defend themselves without their allies, though Iran could help them with training.

Hezbollah, a Shi'ite movement that says it is defending Lebanon from Israeli aggression, declined immediate comment.

ISRAELI CONCERNS

Analysts say the Fateh-110 could put the Tel Aviv metropolis in range of Hezbollah gunners, 100 km (60 miles) to the north, bolstering the arsenal of a group that fired some 4,000 shorter-range rockets into Israel during a month-long war in 2006.

“What we want is to ensure that inside the Syrian chaos we will not see Hezbollah growing stronger,” Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Netanyahu, told Army Radio.

“The world is helplessly looking on at events in Syria, the Americans in particular, and this president in particular,” he added of Obama. “He has left Iraq, Afghanistan and has no interest in sending ground troops to Syria … That is why, as in the past, we are left with our own interests, protecting them with determination and without getting too involved.”

Video footage uploaded onto the Internet by Syrian activists showed a series of blasts. One lit up the skyline of Damascus, while another sent up a tower of flames and secondary blasts.

Syrian state news agency SANA said Israeli aircraft struck in three places: northeast of Jamraya; the town of Maysaloun on the Lebanese border; and the nearby Dimas air base.

“The sky was red all night,” one man said from Hameh, near Jamraya. “We didn't sleep a single second. The explosions started after midnight and continued through the night.”

Central Damascus was quiet on the first day of the working week, and government checkpoints seemed reinforced. Some opposition activists said they were glad strikes might weaken Assad, even if few Syrians have any liking for Israel: “We don't care who did it,” Rania al-Midania said in the capital. “We care that those weapons are no longer there to kill us.”

Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Marwan Makdesi in Damascus, Maayan Lubell, Dan Williams, Jeffrey Heller and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Roberta Rampton Aboard Air Force One and Arshad Mohammed and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Will Waterman

U.N. observers failing mandate to track Hezbollah arms, Israeli official says


U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon have failed to report on Hezbollah guerrilla armaments as required, a senior Israeli official said on Thursday, arguing that Israel could not rely on foreign intervention for its security.

The remarks underscored the conservative strategies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as instability rocks Israel's neighbors and world powers urge it to roll back its West Bank occupation to make way for Palestinian state.

“Under pressure, a multi-national force is like an umbrella that gets folded up on a rainy day,” Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu's national security adviser, said in a Tel Aviv University speech.

Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, Amidror said, has been building its arsenal despite the 35-year presence of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in its heartland.

“Has Hezbollah avoided bringing any kind of rocket, missile or other arms into southern Lebanon because UNIFIL is there?” he said. Israel believes Hezbollah has amassed 60,000 rockets, including 5,000 with heavy warheads capable of hitting Tel Aviv.

“Under their (UNIFIL) mandate, they cannot stop Hezbollah and confiscate its arms, but they can write a report. There has been no UNIFIL report about any weapon of any Hezbollah person since UNIFIL has existed,” Amidror said.

As part of the U.N. ceasefire that ended Israel's inconclusive 2006 war with Hezbollah, UNIFIL's mandate was enhanced to include “assisting” the Lebanese army with keeping guerrilla “personnel, assets and weapons” out of south Lebanon.

UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said that since 2006, the U.N. peacekeepers had “not witnessed the entry of any illegal weapons into the UNIFIL area of operations in south Lebanon”.

While the border is largely quiet, Israel fears Hezbollah could pound it with rockets in retaliation should it carry out long-threatened strikes on Iran's nuclear sites.

Israel also worries that Hezbollah could obtain advanced weapons, including chemical munitions, from Syria. But the militia has said its current capabilities are sufficient.

In their own breach of the 2006 truce, the Israelis have regularly sent warplanes on surveillance flights over Lebanon.

Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation, and from the Gaza Strip in 2005 after 38 years of occupation. Armed threats from Hezbollah in the former, and Palestinian Hamas Islamists in the latter, have been cited by Netanyahu as justifying his reluctance to give up the West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Hamas rival who governs in the West Bank, has accused Israel of sabotaging diplomacy by peppering the territory with Jewish settlements and holding up funds for his U.S.-backed administration.

The Israelis question Abbas's ability to govern long-term.

“If there aren't the appropriate security arrangements, it would be better for Israel to go without an accord (with the Palestinians) than to have an accord that will endanger its security and could bring about a situation in which in the next war, Israel will lose,” Amidror said.

Writing by Dan Williams and Dominic Evans; Editing by Jason Webb

No arms found on ship intercepted by Israel


Israeli naval forces did not find any arms on a ship intercepted in the Mediterranean Sea.

The HS Beethoven, flying a Liberian flag, was intercepted Sunday off the northern coast of Israel and boarded by the elite naval commando unit Shayetet 13.

The inspection, called a “routine” security check by the military, was undertaken with the permission of the ship’s captain. The commandos boarded the ship without incident, Haaretz reported.

Israel says Gaza gets anti-plane arms from Libya


Palestinians in Gaza have acquired anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets from Libya during its six-month civil war, enlarging but not significantly improving their arsenal, Israeli officials said on Monday.

While the rebellion against Muammar Gadhafi has stirred concern abroad about the fate of Libya’s aging chemical weapons stockpiles, Israel has no indication Hamas or other Palestinian factions have sought these, the officials said.

Instead, Israeli officials have detected an inflow of SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), said one official, describing an overland supply route that opened up between eastern Libya—after it fell to the rebels—and the Gaza Strip via Egypt.

“We’ve been seeing more SA-7s and RPGs coming across,” said the official. “It’s not a major qualitative enhancement for them.”

The Soviet-designed SA-7 is a shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile which Israel said Palestinians had previously smuggled into Gaza. Rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), designed to penetrate armor, are plentiful in the territory.

Another Israeli official said “thousands” of the weapons had reached Gaza in recent months, but did not provide figures on how many had originated in Libya.

Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, which borders both Israel and Gaza, has long seen traffic in arms bound for Palestinians. The weapons come up through Sudan or arrive by ship over the Mediterranean.

State television reported in Cairo on Monday that Egyptian border guards had discovered “a large quantity” of weapons at the border with Libya, giving no more details.

Hamas, an Islamist group that governs Gaza, and smaller armed factions declined comment on the Israeli statements.

Egypt has stepped up efforts to impose order in Sinai, though Cairo’s authority has been weakened by the citizen revolt that forced President Hosni Mubarak from power.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Roger Atwood

Turkey to UN: We seized illegal Iran arms shipment en route to Syria


Turkey has informed a UN Security Council panel that it seized a cache of weapons Iran was attempting to export in breach of a UN arms embargo, according to a document obtained by Reuters on Thursday.

Security Council diplomats said the report of the seizure from an Iranian cargo plane reflected positively on Turkey, which some U.S. and European officials say has taken a lax approach to implementing international sanctions against Iranian financial institutions.

The report to the council’s Iran sanctions committee, which oversees compliance with the four rounds of punitive steps the 15-nation body has imposed on Iran over its nuclear program, said a March 21 inspection turned up the weapons, which were listed as “auto spare parts” on the plane’s documents.

Read more at Haartez.com.

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