Middle East

Russia accuses U.S. of arming Syria rebels

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)

TEHRAN: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday accused the United States of supplying weapons to Syria's rebels, worsening the conflict engulfing Moscow's allied regime in Damascus.

Russia was supplying "anti-air defense systems" to Damascus in a deal that "in no way violates international laws," Lavrov told a news conference during a brief visit to Iran.

"That contrasts with what the United States is doing with the opposition, which is providing arms to the Syrian opposition which are being used against the Syrian government," he said.

It was the first time Moscow has directly pointed the finger at Washington. Previously, it had said unidentified "foreign powers" were arming Syria's opposition.

Lavrov's accusation followed a charge by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday that she had information Russia was sending to Syria "attack helicopters... which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."

Asked in the Tehran news conference specifically about the helicopter allegation, Lavrov said only that Moscow was giving Damascus "conventional weapons" related to air defense, and asserted that the deal complied with international law.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told reporters last month that Moscow believed "it would be wrong to leave the Syrian government without the means for self-defense."

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in the same news conference with Lavrov on Wednesday that Tehran and Moscow were "very close" on the Syria issue.

Western and Arab nations, he said, "are sending weapons to Syria and forces to Syria, and are not allowing the reforms promised by the Syrian president to be applied."

Reports in Iran allege that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States are arming Syria's rebels -- termed "terrorists" by Damascus -- while US officials claim Iran is giving arms and military advisers to Syria's regime.

Some observers fear the conflict, which the UN's chief peacekeeper agrees now resembles a civil war, could blow up into a struggle between forces helped by outside nations.

"There is a real risk of it sliding into a proxy war as certain states support the regime or 'the opposition'," one Western diplomat told AFP, speaking on condition on anonymity.

"The conflict in Syria certainly appears to be getting more brutal -- and not just on one side," the diplomat warned.

Monitors say at least 14,100 people have been killed in the 15-month uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Russia came under fierce criticism from Western and Arab countries for vetoing two U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have sanctioned Assad for his use of force.

Moscow is now trying to organize an international conference on Syria that would include several nations with influence over the conflict, including Iran. The United States, Britain and France, though, object to Iran taking part.





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