Weapons in the wings as Syria peace talks start
John Kerry shakes hands with Lakhdar Brahimi, UN Joint Special Representative for Syria, watched by Sergei Lavrov Russian Foreign Minister during a press conference after their meeting at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. Kerry and Lavrov say the prospects for a resumption in the Syria peace process are riding on the outcome of their chemical weapons talks.
Kerry, flanked by Lavrov and Brahimi, told reporters after an hour-long meeting that the chances for a second peace conference in Geneva “will obviously depend on the capacity to have success here … on the subject of the chemical weapons.” By AP. Photo by Martial Trezzini, AP /Keystone.
Potential delivery of Russia’s S-300 missile system to Iran has been floated in a Moscow paper as the Kremlin seeks leverage in its dispute with the US over Syria.
By Fred Weir and Mike Eckel, Christian Science Monitor
September 11, 2013
Russia and the United States may have found common ground on Syria’s chemical weapons, giving President Barack Obama a way to avoid threatened missile strikes and President Vladimir Putin a way to support longtime ally Syria.
But the Russians may be playing a more complicated game than the Americans realize, possibly reviving talk of the arms deal with Iran to create added leverage in their ongoing dispute with the US over what to do about Syria.
The respected Russian daily Kommersant reported Wednesday that the Kremlin has decided to go ahead with the sale of a package of its advanced S-300 antiaircraft missile system to Iran, reversing a decision made three years ago by then-President Dmitry Medvedev. The Kremlin issued a terse denial, saying that Mr. Putin did not give orders to prepare a new S-300 deal with Iran.
One of the most sophisticated missile defense systems in the world, the S-300 would give Iran a major capability to defend against air strikes, something that alarms Israel, where leaders have frequently mused about an air mission to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
The Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. Iran wants it as protection against any Israeli attacks on its nuclear reactor; Russia cancelled the contract, but Iran has filed a lawsuit. Sorting this out is an aspect of Russia’s reconfiguring of its middle east relations.
The newspaper cited sources close to the Kremlin as saying that Putin is considering a proposal to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, that could undermine the new spirit of US-Russian cooperation over Syria. Putin and Mr. Rouhani will meet Friday on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Kyrgyzstan.
According to the story, Russia is worried about a $4 billion lawsuit that Iran filed in a Geneva arbitration court after Russia canceled an $800-million contract to supply five batteries of long-range S-300 systems to Tehran. The paper says the new deal would involve five batteries of an upgraded version of the S-300, known as S-300VM. The new deal would be offered on condition that Iran withdraws its lawsuit against Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-run arms exporting company.
The newspaper also said Russia would offer to construct a second reactor for Iran’s Russian-built civilian nuclear power plant at Bushehr, the first of which went online about two years ago. Bushehr’s construction was highly controversial, with the US, Israel and others worrying that the plant would give Iran a way to divert uranium for weapons.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the Kommersant report, telling Ekho Moskvi radio Wednesday “Vladimir Putin did not give instructions for the question of supplying modified S-300 complexes to be studied.”
The Russian missile system, which is comparable to the US Patriot antimissile defense system, has been a regular source of controversy, in large part because of its long range — up to 120 miles — and ability to track multiple targets. Before Mr. Medvedev cancelled the S-300 deal with Iran in 2010, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu made repeated visits to Moscow in an effort to persuade the Kremlin not to go ahead with the sale.
Similarly, the US and Israel staged a diplomatic full court press to persuade Putin to cancel a contract to supply S-300s to Syria earlier this year. It was unclear whether that sale had gone through until Putin explained in an interview last week “we have a contract for the supply of S-300s [to Syria], and we have already supplied some of its components. But the delivery has not been completed, and we have suspended it for now.”
In the same interview, Putin implied that Russia had agreed to halt sales of the S-300 to Syria and Iran in order to support international efforts to promote peace negotiations. He said Russian policy could change if the West embarks on military-backed campaigns for regime change.
“If we see that steps are being taken that violate current international norms, we shall think how we should act in the future, including with regard to supplies of such sensitive weapons to certain parts of the world,” Putin was quoted as saying.
That thought was expressed more bluntly on Wednesday by the hawkish chair of the State Duma’s international affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov, who told parliament that if the US turns away from the path of diplomacy in Syria in favor of military action, Russia should think of ways to retaliate. “If the war party prevails in the US. . . I would consider it absolutely justified to (take) more serious measures, including increasing the supply of defensive weapons to Iran and changing the terms of our cooperation with the US on Afghanistan, particularly transit conditions,” Mr. Pushkov was quoted as saying.
Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan confirmed Wednesday that Iran is pressing Russia to fulfill the S-300 contract, using the lawsuit as a prod. “It comes to me as a question how is it that a former world power and one of the current powers of the world doesn’t implement an inked legal international contract. ” Dehquan was quoted by the semi-official Fars news agency as saying. “[The Russians] have signed a contract and they should come and implement it.”
Vladimir Yevseyev, an analyst at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, says that Medvedev went beyond the terms of the 2010 UN Security Council resolution placing sanctions on Iran, which Russia supported, when he canceled the S-300 deal. “Russia has no choice here. We either supply the S-300s, or pay them $4 billion. It’s not a matter for discussion. Moscow doesn’t really care what Washington or Tel Aviv thinks about it,” he says.
Fiona Hill, a former top Russia and Eurasia official at the US National Intelligence Council, said the sale, or the threat of the sale, would act as leverage for Moscow in dealing with Washington. In other words, Moscow may not actually seek to follow through with the delivery, but just have that option to negotiate with the Americans, or the Iranians.
“This is how they always play on these sort of issues,” she says. “Just because they appear to be cooperative on this issue… does not change their overall activity on all the Middle East issues… Mr. Putin is perfectly capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.”
US officials said they were aware of the press reports, and pointed out that US officials have raised the issue of the S-300 transfer to Iran repeatedly with Moscow in the past.
“Transfer of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran would have negative implications for regional security. We welcomed the Russian Government’s decision in 2010 to refrain from this sale,” Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the US National Security Council, wrote in an email. “We regularly raise our concerns with Russian government officials over the destabilizing consequences of transfers of advanced weapons systems to Iran.”
Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with Kommersant, says that there has been conflict inside Russia’s establishment over the wisdom of canceling the S-300 contract with Iran from the very beginning. “I recall a flurry of discussions at the time over whether that deal violated the Security Council resolution that we had supported, so this is not a particularly new question,” he says.
Mr. Strokan says the missile deal, if it goes through, would solve two Russian problems with one decision.
“First, it would remove the biggest irritant in our relations with Iran. The cancellation of that S-300 sale angered Tehran a lot, and led to that lawsuit in Geneva. Second, it would send a message to the US that we are still capable of making things much more complicated, if they decide not to keep up their side of understandings we thought we had.”
By John Aglionby in London and Geoff Dyer in Washington, Financial Times
September 13, 2013
The US and Russian foreign ministers announced on Friday that in addition to seeking a way to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons they were looking to restart talks to reach a broader solution to the country’s civil war.
John Kerry, US secretary of state, said after he and Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, met Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy on Syria, that they would meet in New York on the sidelines of the UN general assembly at the end of the month to try and take forward the stalled so-called Geneva II process.
“[US] President [Barack] Obama is deeply committed to a negotiated solution [to Syria’s civil war],” Mr Kerry said. “We’re working hard to find the common ground to make that happen.
“We are committed to working together, beginning with this initiative on the chemical weapons and we hope that these efforts can pay off and bring peace and stability.”
Mr Lavrov, who described the meeting with Mr Brahimi as “very useful”, said that striking a deal on how to bring President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons under international control was the immediate goal.
“We’re here basically to discuss the issue of chemical weapons in Syria,” he said. “Now that the Assad government joined the chemical weapons convention, we have to engage with professionals to design a road to make sure this issue is resolved quickly, professionally.”
Mr Brahimi said that reaching a deal on how to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons was an important step towards convening a Geneva II peace conference. The Geneva II conference was initially proposed for June but has slipped as neither of the warring sides nor their respective international backers could find common ground.
The rapport between Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov appeared much warmer than on Thursday at the outset of their two-day meeting on Syria’s chemical weapons. They gave no details of how those talks were going and returned to their discussions after meeting Mr Brahimi.
Washington and Moscow are still thought to be at odds over whether the threat of force against Damascus should be part of the agreement.
Mr Kerry said on Thursday that the Obama administration had “high expectations for a diplomatic solution” but that “only the credible threat of force” had pushed Syria to consider giving up its weapons.
Mr Kerry called for a “quick” disclosure of details about Syria’s weapons and said: “Should diplomacy fail, force might be necessary. There ought to be consequences if it does not take place.”
Russia, however, said the threat of US military action could scupper the potential for an agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons, while Mr Assad said he would only consider signing the Chemical Weapons Convention if the US were to withdraw its threat of air strikes.
Vladimir Putin, Russian president, said Mr Assad’s formal application on Thursday to join the Chemical Weapons Convention was “an important step towards the resolution of the Syrian crisis”.
“This confirms the serious intention of our Syrian partners to follow this path,” he said on Friday.
Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov are meeting at a hastily called summit in Geneva to discuss Moscow’s proposal, which surfaced in a haphazard manner earlier in the week. The plan was quickly embraced by an Obama administration facing limited political support at home for air strikes.
American officials said Mr Kerry, who is travelling with a large team of advisers and arms control experts, would use the Geneva meeting to test the willingness of Russia and Syria to sign up to a rapid international process that would see it hand over its chemical weapons.
If Damascus does join the convention, it will be required to declare and eventually destroy its chemical weapons stocks.
Given that Syria did not even acknowledge it had chemical weapons until a few days ago, US officials argue that Syria’s new approach was a vindication of President Barack Obama’s threat of military action.
The Syrian Coalition, the main opposition group, said on Friday it was “deeply sceptical” about the Assad regime signing the chemical weapons convention. “Such a gesture comes as too little too late to save civilians from the regime’s murderous intent and is clearly an attempt to evade international action as well as accountability in front of the Syrian people,” it said in a statement. “A UN Security Council resolution on the matter must enforce compliance through clearly defined timelines and consequences.”
Additional reporting by Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut