Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said his forces were gaining ground against rebels and acknowledged the role of Hezbollah fighters in efforts to retake a strategic town in the country’s civil war.
The “balance of power has shifted” in favor of the Syrian army, Assad told Hezbollah’s Al Manar television in an interview aired yesterday. Asked if Russia has supplied the regime with S-300 missiles, he said the two governments would honor all arms agreements. Some of the deals “have, of course, been already carried out,” he said.
Al Manar had earlier suggested that Assad said part of the long-range missile shipment had been received. The pro-Syrian Al-Akhbar newspaper also reported that the president told the television station that more missiles would arrive soon, drawing skepticism from military analysts, who said the systems needed time to be delivered and were too large to be undetected.
Assad’s defiance has hindered efforts to broker a transition of power, while Hezbollah’s open involvement in the battle over the city of al-Qusair has raised concern in Lebanon that the Shiite guerrilla group, which the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist organization, is dragging the country deeper into Syria’s conflict.
The rebel Free Syrian Army has threatened to retaliate against Lebanon-based Hezbollah and said al-Qusair’s fall would trigger a sectarian war. Assad’s Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Assad’s enemies are largely Sunni.
At least 80,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in 2011, Vuk Jeremic, president of the United Nations’ General Assembly, said this month.
Hezbollah fighters are helping troops loyal to Assad to retake Al-Qusair from the rebels, where more than 1,000 wounded civilians are stranded and in need of aid, according to the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition.
Rebel fighters from Aleppo have been able to slip into Al-Qusair, the U.K.-based pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page today. The report came a day after the coalition’s acting chief, George Sabra, said 1,000 fighters from all over the country will join the rebels there.
The coalition won’t attend international meetings on the crisis unless the conflict ends in Al-Qusair, Sabra said in Istanbul yesterday. The U.S. and Israel are seeking to convene a peace conference in Geneva next month.
Assad said the “wailing” against Hezbollah’s role aims at “suffocating the resistance” of the Iranian-backed group against Israel.
The Jewish state has repeatedly warned Syria this year that it would act to prevent any shipments of advanced arms to Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006. Israeli officials haven’t claimed responsibility for three air strikes in Syria meant to stop such shipments, most recently this month.
Israeli National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror told European Union ambassadors last week that his country would prevent the S-300 missiles from becoming operational on Syrian soil if delivered, Ha’aretz newspaper reported, citing two unidentified diplomats who attended the briefing.
Russia would need at least seven to nine months to deliver the first shipment, said Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow and a member of public advisory board of Russia’s Defense Ministry.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said this week the delivery of the long-range missiles “is a stabilizing factor.” Russia is supplying Assad with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles while the EU, under pressure from Britain and France, has authorized arms shipments to rebels.
In Istanbul, where opposition groups are meeting along with European and U.S. diplomats, the Syrian National Coalition expressed “gratitude” for the EU decision to lift its arms embargo. The group asked that “specialized weaponry” be sent soon to “repel the fierce attacks waged against unarmed civilians by Assad, Hezbollah, and Iranian forces,” according to a statement.
The opposition has become harder to unite over time, said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
“They’ve gotten more divided and they’re beginning to shoot at each other on the ground, so it’s going in the opposite direction,” Landis said in a telephone call from Turkey.
Russia’s S-300 missile was first deployed by the Soviet Union in the late 1970s. Modified versions of the system can engage 12 targets simultaneously at ranges of 200 kilometers (124 miles). The U.S. has told Russia that sales of advanced missile systems to Syria would be “destabilizing” for Israel’s security, Secretary of State John Kerry said on May 9 in Rome.
The government in Moscow has rejected calls for Assad to stand down as Syrian leader immediately. Assad says running in the 2014 election depends on popular support for his candidacy. “If I feel that the Syrian people do not want me, it’s natural that I won’t run,” he told Al Manar.
To contact the reporters on this story: Alaa Shahine in Dubai at email@example.com; Nadeem Hamid in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com