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Russia delivering advanced air defense to Syria, despite US objections

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of the Syrian Arab Republic Bashar al-Assad. (Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russia has started delivering an S-300 missile defense system to Syria, despite objections raised by the United States and Israel, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said.

“The delivery started already,” in line with President Vladimir Putin’s orders after the downing of a Russian military jet on September 17 that killed 15 servicemen,Lavrov told a news conference at the United Nations late on September 28.

“The measures we will take will be devoted to ensure 100 percent safety and security of our men in Syria,” he said.

The Russian Ilyushin Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by Syrian antiaircraft fire, but Moscow partly blamed Israel for the incident, claiming that Israeli fighter pilots who were staging raids against targets in Syria at the time had dodged behind the Russian jet to avoid being hit.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Putin to express sorrow at the loss of life, but he vowed that Israel would continue to stage bombing raids against Iranian military targets in Syria and warned Russia about the “dangers” of introducing an advanced antiaircraft system into what he called “irresponsible hands” in Syria.

Washington also expressed concern about the S-300 delivery, saying it would “escalate” the conflict in Syria.

Russia, along with Iran, in the last year has played a critical role in helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recover much of the territory he lost during the course of a seven-year war that has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions.

With the Russia-Syria-Iran alliance now preparing to try to reassert control over the last remaining rebel-held areas in the country, Lavrov warned outside powers against trying to reintroduce Western terms for ending the conflict through the UN.

The United States, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Britain, and Saudi Arabia this week called on the UN’s special envoy for Syria, Steffan de Mistura, to restart talks on writing a new constitution and staging new elections in Syria.

Assad already has rejected the initiative, and Lavrov warned that any outside attempt to impose a resolution in Syria now would be a “grave mistake.”

He said Russia, Syria, and Iran have already been more successful than the UN at resolving aspects of the conflict through a forum they created along with Turkey. That alternative negotiating process recently produced an agreement over how to proceed in the last rebel-held province, Idlib.

The agreement called for creating a “demilitarized zone” in the province by October 15, and Lavrov said Turkey, which is allied with more moderate rebel groups fighting Assad, currently is carrying out the agreement, convincing hard-line militant groups to pull out of the zone with their heavy weapons.

Once the extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate with an estimated 10,000 fighters, has been separated from other opposition groups that are “willing to be involved in a political process,” Lavrov said, it is still Russia’s and the Syrian government’s intent to “eliminate” them.

“There is talk that they will be sent off to other hotspots, for example Afghanistan,” he said. “This is unacceptable…They have to be eliminated, or there has to be a judicial process.”