Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, says Russian anti-aircraft missiles have arrived in Syria, Lebanese TV has reported, a claim likely to dramatically increase tensions in the region and which could provoke the Israelis to launch a strike against the weapons.
In an interview with the al-Manar channel, to be broadcast on Thursday, Assad allegedly confirmed that Moscow had begun to deliver the long-range S-300 air defense rockets.
“Syria has received the first shipment … All our agreements with Russia will be implemented and parts of them have already been implemented,” he said.
Assad also claims that his forces were winning the battle on the ground and had scored “major victories” against the armed opposition.
“The balance of power is now with the Syrian army,” he told the TV channel, which is owned by the Shia militant group Hezbollah, whose fighters support his regime.
The deal between the Kremlin and the Syrian government has been in progress for some time. But the S-300 shipment, if confirmed, appears to be Russian retaliation for the European Union’s controversial decision this week to lift an arms embargo on Syria. Britain, France and regional states such as Turkey are now actively seeking to arm the country’s moderate rebels.
There was confusion on Thursday in Western capitals as to whether Assad’s claim was true. American officials said they had no evidence that the S-300 shipment had arrived. One high-ranking Israeli official said: “We are trying to find out exactly what the situation is, but currently we just don’t know.”
Defense analysts said it was possible some elements of the S-300s – made up of launchers, radar, and a command-and-control vehicle – had turned up, but they doubted the system was yet operational.
Nonetheless, senior Israeli figures signaled the possibility that Israel could now launch a pre-emptive attack on Syria with a view to destroying the S-300s, which it sees as an existential threat. Earlier this week Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, said Israel could not afford to allow the new system to become fully functional.
Read more: The Guardian