MOSCOW Russia reserves the right to provide Syria with state-of-the art air defense missiles, seeing it as a key deterrent against foreign intervention in the country, a top Russian official said Tuesday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov wouldn't say whether Russia has shipped any of the long-range S-300 air defense missile systems, but added that Moscow isn't going to abandon the deal despite strong Western and Israeli criticism. He claimed the air defense weapons can't be used in the civil war against the opposition, which doesn't have aircraft.
"We understand the concerns and signals sent to us from different capitals, we realize that many of our partners are concerned about the issue," Ryabkov said, adding that "we have no reason to revise our stance."
"We believe that such steps to a large extent help restrain some 'hot heads' considering a scenario to give an international dimension to this conflict," he said.
Ryabkov also accused the European Union of "throwing fuel on the fire" by letting its own arms embargo on Syria's rebels expire, Reuters reports.
Russia has been the key ally of the Syrian regime, protecting it from the United Nations sanctions and providing it with weapons despite the civil war there that has claimed over 70,000 lives.
Moscow, however, so far has refrained from providing Damascus with the S-300s, a powerful weapon that has a range of up to 125 miles and the capability to track down and strike multiple targets simultaneously. The weapon would mean a quantum leap in Syria's air defense capability, including against neighboring countries that oppose Assad's regime.
Ryabkov's statement comes a day after European Union's decision to lift an arms embargo to Syrian opposition.
A senior Syrian opposition member said Tuesday that the expiration of the embargo was "positive" but added that it would not impact the course of the conflict quickly enough.
The public brinkmanship comes as Russia and the U.S. are trying to bring both sides in Syria to Geneva for talks on ending the country's devastating two-year civil war.
The Geneva talks next month, mediated by the U.S. and Russia, offer what Western diplomats say is the best - if still very tenuous - chance to end the bloodshed that is increasingly threatening to embroil Syria's Mideast neighbors. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met again in Paris late on Monday to discuss the proposed conference but did not announce any specific plans.
The lifting of the EU arms embargo was rammed through a divided EU foreign ministers meeting late Monday by Britain and France. Russia claimed it undermines the U.S. and Russian peace efforts.
Monday's EU agreement lifts a self-imposed embargo on weapons deliveries into Syria - notably equipment that could at least partially help the outgunned rebel fighters hold their own against Syria's massive, Russian-backed firepower. EU diplomats said Britain and France were the only two member states considering such deliveries.
Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, made an unannounced visit to rebel forces in Syria, putting more pressure on Assad to seek a negotiated settlement.
In Damascus, a Syrian lawmaker on Tuesday criticized the EU decision, saying that efforts to arm the rebels will discourage the opposition from seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict.
The comments by Essam Khalil, a member of the parliament for the ruling Baath Party, were the first by a Syrian official.
Gunmen killed three Lebanese soldiers in a drive-by shooting on a government checkpoint near the Syrian border Tuesday, Lebanon's military said, escalating tensions in a deeply divided country wary of being increasingly pulled into the civil war raging next door.
The pre-dawn shooting in Lebanon took place at a roadblock near the predominantly Sunni town of Arsal, nestled in the hills about seven miles from the border. The army said in a statement that gunmen fired on the checkpoint from a moving car. Troops have launched a massive search for the attackers.
The Lebanese are divided over Syria's civil war, with the Shiite militant group Hezbollah fighting alongside Assad's troops while large numbers of Sunnis have taken up arms to support the opposition.
Inside Lebanon, sporadic clashes have erupted between factions backing opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, most recently in the northern city of Tripoli, raising fears that the Syrian violence spilling over into Lebanon will re-ignite the sectarian war that devastated the country before it ended in 1990.
Tensions have soared since a Syrian government offensive in the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border. Hezbollah has backed the government in the battle, losing dozens of fighters.