AP: Lavrov: Syria peace conference could be derailed

Jun. 21, 2013 @ 03:14 PM

Russia's foreign minister said Friday that Washington is sending contradictory signals on Syria that could derail an international conference intended to end that country's civil war, warning that U.S. talk about a possible no-fly zone would only encourage the rebels to keep fighting.

Sergey Lavrov also criticized demands that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down.

"Not because we like the regime, not because we want the regime to stay, but because it's for the Syrians to decide," Lavrov said in an interview. "And to say you must capitulate and deliver the power to us is just not realistic."

In addition, he dismissed allegations by the U.S., Britain and France that Assad's regime has used chemical weapons.

Russia has been the key ally of Assad's regime throughout the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 93,000 people, shielding it from U.N. Security Council sanctions and continuing to provide it with weapons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has confirmed that his country signed a contract for the delivery of S-300 state-of-the art air defense missile systems to Syria, but said it hasn't been fulfilled yet.

Lavrov defended the S-300 deal, pointing to the deployment of U.S. Patriot air defense missiles and fighter jets to neighboring Jordan.

"The contract on S-300s is absolutely legal, it's transparent and it's fully in line with the international norms and with the Russian export control legislation," he told The Associated Press and the Bloomberg news agency.

"Second, the contract hasn't been yet finalized. Third, the Americans are leaving Patriots after this exercise in Jordan, together with F-16 planes, and no one is asking them not to do this. The region is really full of weapons, including offensive weapons which have been supplied in the past to the countries of the region, and some of these weapons are infiltrating into Syria."

He said supplies of weapons to the Syrian opposition, which have been promised by Washington and are being considered by the European Union, would be a "very big mistake."

Lavrov was asked if Russia is warning the West in particular against providing the rebels with shoulder-fired air defense missiles that could challenge Assad's air dominance. He replied: "We believe this is absolutely illegitimate, and we aren't going to legitimize it by starting discussing some conditions on which these supplies could be justified."

Putin, speaking to reporters after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a business forum in St. Petersburg, argued that Western weapons, if they are supplied to the opposition, could fall into the hands of al-Qaida-linked militants who form part of the rebel force and eventually be used against the West.

Putin also warned that if Assad steps down, that could lead to the vacuum of power that would be quickly filled by al-Qaida-connected rebels. "How can we avoid it? There are well-armed, and very aggressive," he said.