Assad Warns Israel, Claiming a Stockpile of Russian Weapons
Mr. Assad spoke in an interview broadcast on Al-Manar television, which is owned by his ally Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite militant group, further punctuating his message of growing confidence that he could prevail over an insurgency that is now more than two years old and has claimed more than 80,000 lives.
Asked about Russian weapons deliveries, Mr. Assad said: “Russia is committed with Syria in implementing these contracts. What we agreed upon with Russia will be implemented, and part of it has been implemented over the recent period, and we are continuing to implement it.”
He was vague on whether Russia’s deliveries had included a sophisticated S-300 air missile system — of particular concern to Israel because it could compromise Israel’s ability to strike Syria from the air and because those missiles can hit deep inside Israeli territory. The Israelis have said they would not abide a Syrian deployment of S-300s, suggesting they would use force to destroy them.
Before the broadcast, Al-Manar had sent out text messages that paraphrased Mr. Assad as saying Syria had already received a first shipment of the S-300 missiles.
It was unclear why those paraphrased comments were not included in the broadcast, and Al-Manar later said it mischaracterized what Mr. Assad had said. But American and Israeli officials have been pressing Russia to defer the S-300 system delivery to Syria, and there were other indications that the paraphrased comments may have been a premature boast or bluff.
Israeli officials and Western diplomats in the region said they did not believe such a system had yet arrived in Syria, with some saying any delivery could be at least a few weeks away. Even so, the possibility presented a new risk that the Syrian war could expand into a broader conflict.
“We’re in stormy waters indeed,” said Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “Somebody or other has to not do what they have openly claimed they would do. Somebody has to lose serious face, and governments don’t like to lose face at the moment of serious confrontation.”
Mr. Assad spent considerable time in the interview to warn Israel, which attacked what it suspected were weapons caches in Syria this month that the Israelis suspected were bound for Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
“We will retaliate for any Israeli aggression next time,” Mr. Assad said. He also suggested the possibility of renewed fighting in the Golan Heights, the disputed border area occupied by Israel, which has been largely quiet for more than 40 years.
“In fact, there is clear popular pressure to open the Golan front to resistance,” Mr. Assad said. The Syrian government, he said, had received “many Arab delegations wanting to know how young people might be enrolled to come and fight Israel.”
Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Mr. Assad’s comments on the Golan were worrisome in the context of other recent statements from Syria, particularly its assertion that Israel had violated the 1974 agreement that has allowed for the calm along the cease-fire line.
“It’s a very sensitive, explosive situation being created by the new level of rhetoric,” Mr. Yaari said. “You ask yourself whether the rhetoric is not going to lead to actions at some point.”
Mr. Assad reiterated the Syrian government’s intention to attend a United Nations peace conference on Syria, which Russia and the United States have been seeking to convene in Geneva in coming weeks despite their own differences over the conflict. But he said any agreements that might result from such a conference would have to be approved by Syrians in a referendum.
Even as Mr. Assad’s broadcast was aired, fissures within the Syrian opposition widened, with rebel military commanders demanding a significant new role in the main exile organization.
The disparity underscored the fact that Mr. Assad appeared to be consolidating his position, buttressed on both military and political fronts by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, while the Western-backed opposition stumbles toward ever more serious disarray.
All week, the 63-member Syrian Coalition, the main rebel group, has been entangled anew in petty disputes over how many seats to add. Its leadership announced Thursday that it would boycott the peace conference. It attributed the boycott on Iranian and Hezbollah interference in Syria, but analysts saw it as a position born of weakness and the inability to forge a strong, united bargaining front.
“This is a low point,” said Amr al-Azm, a Syrian-born history professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio who tracks the opposition. “Unlike earlier screaming matches, you have a bad military situation on the ground and Geneva is looming and the opposition has nothing to play. This is as bad as it gets.”
Both the United States and Russia face difficult prospects in getting the Geneva talks to even begin. Representatives of the organizers are expected to meet in Geneva on June 5 to discuss details, including a concrete date.
Moscow faces the challenge of getting Mr. Assad to send a strong enough delegation to make real decisions about a cease-fire and a political transition — essentially a delegation that will agree to limit his power. The ministers he has named to the delegation so far are political appointees with no real power and no role in the inner circle.
It will be tough to convince Mr. Assad because he feels that he is negotiating from a position of strength, analysts said. The thud of artillery has diminished around Damascus and there are few checkpoints in the past couple weeks, according to recent visitors. With a fresh infusion of Hezbollah fighters, government forces might soon expel the opposition from the important crossroads town of Qusayr, which they have held for months.
That would mean Mr. Assad controls all the territory he cares about most, analysts said, namely the area around the capital and the key route to the coastal stronghold of his Alawite minority, which dominates the government.
For the United States and its allies, the first challenge is creating a united delegation from an opposition that has always been anything but united.
The Syrian Coalition has been plagued by internal turmoil since its inception in late 2011.
The group has failed to deliver on most of its promises, ranging from distributing humanitarian aid to areas outside government control, to creating a unified military command, to becoming a serious government-in-exile.
Instead the uneasy, distrustful members — dominated by long-exiled members of the Muslim Brotherhood, academics living abroad for decades and political activists fleeing Syria — have spent most of their time in luxury hotels arguing over which faction should claim what responsibility.
The coalition’s problems have not been lost on Mr. Assad, who spoke contemptuously of his political adversaries in the Al-Manar television interview, describing them as exiles and paid stooges of hostile foreign governments — another indication that prospects for the Geneva conference are dim.
“We will attend this conference as the official delegation and legitimate representatives of the Syrian people,” he said. “But, whom do they represent? When this conference is over, we return to Syria, we return home to our people. But when the conference is over, whom do they return to — five-star hotels?”
Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations. Reporting was contributed by Hala Droubi from Beirut, Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, Steven Lee Myers and Michael R. Gordon from Washington, and Rick Gladstone from New York.