WASHINGTON, May 17 (RIA Novosti) – The United States’ top military officer and leading US lawmakers on Friday criticized Russia’s delivery of advanced anti-ship cruise missiles to the Syrian government, as first reported by The New York Times.
“It’s at the very least an unfortunate decision that will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering, so it’s ill-timed and very unfortunate,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon.
“This weapons transfer is obviously disappointing and will set back efforts to promote the political transition that is in the best interests of the Syrian people and the region,” said US Sen. Bob Corker, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement.
“There is now greater urgency for the US to step up assistance to the moderate opposition forces who can lead Syria after Assad,” he added, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Syrian leader faces growing international pressure from the United States and others to step down from power, pressure that has increased in the wake of reports that government forces may have used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.
“Russia is offering cover to a despotic ruler and defending a bankrupt regime. We can watch from the sidelines as the scales are tipped in Assad’s favor, or protect US national interests by supporting the armed opposition striving to build a new Syrian future,” said US Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement to RIA Novosti.
Unnamed American officials told the New York Times Thursday that Russia had recently sent Syria a more advanced version of the Yakhont missile, which it has delivered to Syria in the past, this time equipped with advanced radar that would make ocean delivery of supplies for opposition fighters far more difficult and could thwart efforts to impose a naval embargo or no-fly zone.
The report comes with an international conference on the Syrian crisis – convened by the United States and Russia – looming in June. It is expected to include representatives of the Syrian government and opposition forces, and aims for a peaceful resolution to the two-year old civil war in Syria that has killed at least 80,000 people according to figures from the United Nations (UN).
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told RIA Novosti she was aware of the report, and said, “We have consistently called on Russia to cut off the Assad regime’s supplies of Russian weapons, which act to further destabilize the region.”
The US State Department said Friday that the transfer of missiles from Russia to Syria had been previously reported in December 2011 and April of 2012, and that it was not aware of any new weapons transfers.
“Any indication that they are new or referring to something new does not jive with our knowledge,” said spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
She said while the United States remains “concerned about any transfer of weapons or assistance to the Syrian regime… we continue to work with the Russians in planning the international conference and in working to get both sides back to the table to work to a political transition.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Friday that Russian arms deliveries to Syria take place under existing contracts and are fully within the law. He also said that the supplies will not change the balance of power in the conflict.
“I do not understand why the media is trying to sensationalize this,” Lavrov said during a press conference in Sochi with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday.