Russia vowed on Wednesday not to follow a Western arms embargo on Syria and promised new air defense systems and other military components to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The announcement came just a day after Russia dispatched a large naval flotilla to the region and appeared aimed at dispelling any suggestion of Moscow dropping its controversial support for Assad.
A top Russian arms export official had raised eyebrows in Western capitals earlier in the week by saying that Russia would no longer provide new weapons for Syria.
That same official on Wednesday told reporters that his comments covered only a tiny range of new types of weapons and in no way concerned the military trade that exists between the two allies today.
“Russia has obligations before Syria relating to old contracts -- contracts that were signed in 2008 and were later followed by new ones on air defense systems,” the Russian Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation’s deputy chief Vyacheslav Dzirkaln said.
“They are being fulfilled and they will be fulfilled,” he told Russian news agencies on the sidelines of the Farnborough Airshow near London.
“But we are not signing any new contracts at this stage,” he added in comments echoing ones he had made earlier in the week.
His initial use of that same phrase on Monday drew cautious praise from the U.S. State Department and were met with encouragement from the spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“Obviously, if it were true, it would be a good sign but we are still seeking further clarification from the Russians,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.
Dzirkaln explained on Wednesday that the decision not to sign new contracts with Syria while the fighting continued in no way spelled a shift in policy or a decision by Moscow to comply with a Western arms embargo of Assad’s regime.
“One cannot possibly speak of us imposing an arms or military technology embargo on Syria,” Dzirkaln was quoted as saying.
But he said Russia would not be supplying 12 MiG-29M fighters and 36 Yak-130 trainer jets that Syria had been planning to purchase from two Russian production plants after striking preliminary deals.
He said the delivery of that equipment would violate global trade treaties, but did not elaborate further.
Russia last month tried sending a cargo ship to Syria with three repaired attack helicopters as well as elements of an air defense system for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The vessel was forced to return to its Arctic base in Russia after the mission was exposed by the U.S. States Department and its British insurer dropped coverage.
Dzirkaln promised to complete this shipment and stressed that most outstanding contracts now concerned air defense systems that were meant to protect Syria’s border in accordance with international rules.
“We are delivering weapons and military technology of an exclusively defensive nature. This primarily concerns air defense systems but also some spare parts,” he said.
Dzirkaln said Russia was now thinking up ways of delivering the three helicopters “without any losses to us and without any provocations by the interested parties.”
Officials had earlier suggested that an option to send the parts by air had been dropped in favor of a new seafaring mission.
Discord at opposition talks
Meanwhile Syrian opposition talks with Russia on a political transition in Damascus ended in discord on Wednesday evening as an opposition leader said Moscow’s policies were helping to prolong the bloodshed in the pivotal Arab country.
“The Syrian people don’t understand Russia’s position. How can Russia keep supplying arms? How can they keep vetoing resolutions? There needs to be an end to mass killings,” said Burhan Ghalioun, former leader of the Syrian National Council.
Syria’s opposition has conditioned starting talks with the Damascus government on Assad relinquishing power. But Russia has said this is unacceptable and not part of an international peace plan laid out by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
“We have made it very clear that any transition period must start with Assad’s departure as otherwise we are really not dealing with the problem,” Abdelbasset Sida, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, told reporters in Moscow.
A member of the SNC delegation said that Moscow had not fundamentally changed its position but that while Russian diplomats were “contradicting themselves”, he said they were “looking for a genuine solution”.
The talks followed separate meetings with other opposition leaders in Moscow on Monday as Russia strives to boost its diplomatic clout in international negotiations over how to end Syria’s bloodshed.
The United States and its European and Gulf Arab allies have said Assad, whose family has dominated Syria for 42 years, must go to enable a peaceful transition. Russia, China and Iran have disagreed, helping Assad withstand pressure to step down.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pressed the Syrian National Council on the Annan plan and points agreed during the meeting of an “Action Group” in Geneva on June 30, which envisages a political transition but leave Assad’s fate open.
“Lavrov decisively called on counterparts to take a clear and unequivocal position confirming the readiness of the SNC to carry out its obligations,” a Foreign Ministry statement said.
Russian officials said Moscow was committed to a political transition in Syria but that a dialogue between government and opposition should not require Assad’s departure.
Russia circulated a draft resolution at the United Nations on Tuesday to extend a U.N. monitoring mission in Syria now bottled up in hotels by the violence.
Moscow has acted as one of Assad’s few supporters, sending him arms and blocking Western-led attempts to isolate him with U.N. sanctions while violence in Syria has raged on, raising the death toll over 17,000, by a count of opposition activists.