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Middle East

Netanyahu makes bid to sway Putin on Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. (AP Photo/ Maxim Shipenkov, Pool)

BEIRUT/MOSCOW: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin Tuesday to warn Moscow against sending arms to Syria as anticipation mounts over a proposed U.S.-Russian peace conference on the conflict.

In concluding remarks following talks at Putin’s Black Sea residence in Sochi, the two leaders gave little away about their closed-door meeting.

Putin’s official spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Israel had raised the issue and that Russia defended the arms deliveries.

“The issue was raised. The Russian Federation presented its arguments, which are well known,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Peskov as saying.

Israel wants Russia to halt supplies of the formidable S-300 missiles that would severely complicate any future air attacks against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Netanyahu himself did not mention the sensitive weapons issue in public but Putin warned against any destabilizing moves in the Middle East.

“In this crucial period, it is especially important to avoid any moves that can shake the situation,” Putin said in televised remarks.

Netanyahu meanwhile stressed it was Israel’s task to defend its citizens. The meeting comes amid heightened fears of a regional escalation of the conflict in Syria following a series of Israeli strikes on the country last week that it said was aimed at halting the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, in a fiery speech last Thursday, said Syria would supply the group with “game-changing’ weapons in response.

Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the USA and Canada Institute, suggested that Netanyahu would warn Putin during the current visit that his air force would target the S-300s should the Kremlin decide to deliver the arms to Syria.

“Indirectly, he is letting him know that Israel would destroy the S-300s when they get delivered,” he told AFP.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that Moscow was “completing” supplies of equipment to Syria agreed under previous contracts.

Netanyahu was the latest world leader to beat a path to Putin’s door for talks on Syria in recent days, following a U.S.-Russian agreement to work toward convening a conference aimed at forming a transitional government in the country.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Prime Minister David Cameron met Putin last week, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is also due to meet him in Russia Friday.

Cameron said Monday after talks with U.S. President Barack Obama that London and Moscow had found “common ground” on the crisis.

Obama, however, said there were “lingering suspicions between Russia and other members of the G-8 or the West.”

The conference is likely to be held in early June, said a U.S. State Department spokeswoman Monday.

Yet the role, if any, that Assad could have in any transitional government has proved an ongoing sticking point ahead of any meeting.

Speaking in Stockholm, Kerry told reporters that the fledgling dialogue initiative could include the Syrian president, but that if he decided not to join the conference “it would be another one of Assad’s gross miscalculations.”

“I don’t believe that that is the case at this moment. The Russians, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already given him the names of people who will negotiate,” he said.

Damascus has said that it requires more information on the specifics of the talks before deciding whether to attend.

Kerry warned that Assad’s failure to participate would result in extra assistance for the rebels fighting to oust him.

“If President Assad decides to miscalculate again about that, as he has miscalculated about his own country’s future over the course of the last years, it is clear the opposition will be receiving additional support, there will be additional efforts made and unfortunately the violence will not end,” Kerry warned.

Opposition backers Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who support arming the rebels, have endorsed the proposal on the condition that Assad not play any part in Syria’s future.

Along with Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE, the Gulf heavyweights said Monday that they would support U.S.-Russian-led talks as long as as “it takes in consideration that president Assad and his aides with blood-stained hands would have no place in Syria’s future,” the Emirati WAM news agency reported.

The countries are part of the so-called “Friends of Syria” group, a collection of Western and Arab nations that oppose Assad that will meet in Amman next week to coordinate on a united strategy for the June talks.

The latest diplomatic push comes amid reports that the Assad regime is starting to win back territory.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that at least 94,000 people had now been killed in the conflict, revising a previous toll, based on what they said was new data indicating tens of thousands of people from Alawite areas and regular soldiers had been killed.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 15, 2013, on page 1.

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