BEIRUT: Reports that a trip by U.S. President Barack Obama to Saudi Arabia produced a shift in Washington’s policy on arming Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft weapons were emphatically denied Monday by the State Department.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Washington continued to oppose the supply of anti-aircraft weaponry to rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The Itar-Tass news agency quoted Lavrov as saying that Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed the stance to him personally.
Lavrov “raised the question of media reports that said that the [topic] of deliveries of anti-aircraft missile systems to Syria for the Syrian opposition had been discussed” during Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia over the weekend, Itar-Tass said.
“John Kerry clearly reaffirmed that the Americans are against that.”
The statement comes after mounting media speculation that during Obama’s visit, a U.S.-Saudi agreement had been reached on supplying the insurgents with MANPADS, or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which have long been demanded by both rebels on the ground and the chief opposition-in-exile body, the National Coalition.
Kerry and Lavrov met in Paris over the weekend to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, and the two men followed up the discussions Monday in a telephone call.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, during a press briefing in Washington, declined to say whether Kerry and Lavrov specifically discussed the issue, but maintained that there was no change in policy.
“We have not changed our position on providing MANPADS to the opposition. We have said it’s a proliferation risk – this wasn’t an issue that was even discussed in the meeting in Saudi Arabia” with King Abdullah.
“Obviously we don’t discuss the details about all types of assistance that we provide, but we have made very clear publicly our concerns about this one particular system because it does have a proliferation risk.”
She cited the possible use of the weapons to target civilian aircraft as one example.
In recent months, foreign policy pundits and opinion makers in the U.S. have remained split over whether Washington should take a more active role in the Syrian conflict.
A vocal group of commentators, academics and policy professionals have remained adamant that stepped-up U.S. involvement, whether directly or indirectly, should be avoided at all costs. Another group has just as vocally demanded that Washington change course and accept the notion that if the war drags on, there will only be worse consequences for U.S. interests, meaning that the sooner the White House takes a more forceful stand, the better.
However, this group’s proposed policy moves are far from settled on a preferred course of action.
Some have advocated enforcing no-fly zones or other types of protected corridors for civilian populations, while others have supported a change in the ban on anti-aircraft weapons to the opposition.
In recent months, Coalition President Ahmad Jarba has repeatedly urged backers of the opposition to “honor their commitments” and drop their policy on denying the advanced arms.