Russia says a recent U.S. decision to ease restrictions on arming Syrian rebels is a “hostile act” that would jeopardize Russia’s forces and its other interests in Syria.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized the policy change Tuesday, telling the Reuters news agency that, “the possibility of supplying them with weapons, including mobile anti-aircraft complexes, has been written into this new bill.” She was referring to a defense measure signed recently by U.S. President Barack Obama, who has been critical of Moscow’s involvement in Syria’s war.
She said Russia’s air force, along with other Russian military personnel and Moscow’s embassy in Damascus, would be directly threatened and that any weapons supplied to rebels would quickly end up in the hands of jihadists.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the Russian comments are not new allegations, and that the United States is not providing what are known as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to Syrian rebels.
“Our position on MANPADS has not changed,” Toner told reporters Tuesday. “We would have a very deep concern about that type of weaponry getting into Syria.”
The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been a long-time ally of Russia, which has an air base near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia. Russia helped Syria retake territory lost to rebels, some of whom have the backing of the United States.
Recently, the last rebels left Syria’s northern city of Aleppo, which President Assad’s forces pounded with the backing of their Russian allies. At a year-end news conference earlier this month, Obama said the world “is united in horror at the savage assault by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies on the city of Aleppo.” U.S. strategy in Syria has focused on degrading and destroying Islamic State.
Back in September, the Obama administration, while citing progress in pushing back IS, said more must be done to secure a sustained cease-fire and political transition to end Syria’s civil war, which has been raging for nearly six years.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country, along with Iran, Turkey and Syria, have agreed to hold peace discussions in the Kazakh capital of Astana to resolve the conflict in Syria. He said peace talks are expected to take place in January and that the next step for Syria should be a nationwide cease-fire.
Toner said the United States has not been invited to the talks, but is in frequent contact with both Russia and Turkey.
“We’ve also long said that in order to reach some kind of resolution to the conflict in Syria, all the stakeholders need to agree and need to talk to each other. So the fact that Turkey and Russia are holding these kinds of talks is not necessarily something we would disapprove of,” Toner said.
The comments from the Russians come less than a month before President-elect Donald Trump takes office as the 45th U.S. president. Putin has said he hopes to work with the next U.S. president to lift relations out of the current crisis, resolve international issues and respond to global security challenges. During the U.S. election campaign, Trump leaned toward Moscow’s positions on issues like Russia’s military actions in Syria more than those of his Republican Party. He also spoke highly of President Putin.