Syria conflict: Assad interview fuels missile confusion

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad President Bashar al-Assad said Russia would honour arms deals

An interview given by Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to a Lebanese TV channel has resulted in confusion over the supply of a Russian missile defence system.

Before the interview was aired, Lebanese pro-Syrian newspaper al-Akhbar had reported that Mr Assad would say that a first batch of Russian S-300 missiles had already been delivered. In the event, however, the Syrian president was not nearly as specific over his country's arms dealings with Moscow, and made no mention of S-300s during his interview with the Hezbollah-owned al-Manar TV.

According to the official translation provided by state news agency Sana, Mr Assad said: "All of our agreements with Russia will be implemented, some have been implemented during the past period and, together with the Russians, we will continue to implement these contracts in the future."

Press in the Middle East and neighbouring countries reacted with confusion over al-Akhbar's erroneous trail of the interview, while one Russian newspaper quoted military sources as saying that deliveries of the missile system would not start until next year at the earliest.

Middle Eastern press

Reaction to the interview in the Middle Eastern press was somewhat muted, and did not appear in headlines and commentaries even in papers that are regarded as being pro-regime. Syrian ruling party newspaper al-Ba'th mentioned the interview on its front page, but devoted its editorial to an attack on the Arab League.

Israeli broadsheet Ha'aretz noted the premature nature of reports on the missiles' arrival, accusing Lebanese press of "raising the level of tension in the north by a few superfluous degrees". In a commentary, Amos Harel said: "One way or another, it seems that Assad, with Russian backing, is trying to deter Israel from more attacks in a variety of ways."

Yoav Limor in Yisrael Hayom called the premature announcement "Syrian rhetoric". Limor wrote: "Assad, who fears losing the military support thousands of Hezbollah fighters give him, wanted to encourage them with threats to Israel."

Before the Assad interview, Jerusalem Post said: "It suits Assad to take up a confrontational pose with Israel, without entering into an actual conflict with it (which could spell the end of his regime)… Nevertheless, Assad's message contains a declaration of intent and this is a serious development which has a real potential to spark a confrontation."

Russian press

Russia's influential business daily Kommersant also took al-Akhbar's report at its word, and speculated on the effect of the "Syrian missile shield" on any forthcoming peace negotiations. Talk of missiles "seemed more like a psychological attack by Damascus on the armed opposition and its foreign sponsors", Kommersant said. "And Moscow, which has been in no hurry to name any exact delivery dates, has found itself in an awkward position: it will now have to respond to further accusations of trying to keep Assad in power at any price."

Russia's Vedomosti newspaper thought a delivery of S-300s would not be likely until at least 2014. "The truth is, those air defence missile weapon systems have not been sent to Syria," the paper said, citing a source in the defence industry who also thought that the missiles would be of little tactical use: "Those systems won't help the Syrian government to prevent air strikes on the country in case Nato and Israel decide to act, and everyone realises that."

Turkish press

Press in Syria's neighbour Turkey reacted with dismay to the premature reports on Syrian missile systems.

The centrist Millyet paper criticised the timing of the suspected delivery in the run-up to the Geneva Conference on Syria. "This incident both darkened the horizon of the Geneva Conference and brought the possibility that the tension between the USA and Russia might escalate and that Israel might make a new 'preventive operation'," Sami Kohen wrote.

The moderate, pro-Islam Zaman saw the missile controversy as part of a bigger picture, expecting the UN to move to nullify the missiles' effectiveness. "This is not war, but diplomacy. That is why the rules of the game should not be the rules of the war but of diplomacy."

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