The United States does not supply Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents with man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) but provides coordination and logistics support to such supplies, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.
“True, the US does not supply MANPADS to militants in Syria,” ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. “At the same time, it is also well known that Washington is in the know of supplies of various types of armaments to illegal armed formations operating in Syria.”
“Moreover, the United States, judging by the acknowledgements of American officials published by US media, provides coordination and logistics support to such deliveries,” Lukashevich said.
Lukashevich was commenting on Russian General Staff Chief Nikolai Makarov’s statement and Washington’s reaction to it. Makarov said on Wednesday that Syrian rebels fighting President Assad's regime are now armed with MANPADS including US-made Stingers - a claim the US denied.
Lukashevich said Russia’s position remains unchanged.
“We are calling on all countries to stop feeding illegal armed formations in Syria, do everything possible to prevent MANPADS from getting into the hands of those whose actions are impossible to control, especially with account for militants’ threats to shoot down civil aircraft,” the Russian diplomat said.
Meanwhile, the US State Department on Thursday denied that the country was coordinating weapons deliveries to Syrian rebels.
“I think we've been very clear that we are not providing any lethal assistance ourselves. We've been also clear that we are coordinating and talking with countries around the world… and that one of the things that we are working on… is to try to ensure that any support we give to the opposition is not going to extremists,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
“The implication that we are coordinating the shipment of other people's weapons is ludicrous,” she told a daily press briefing.
NBC news reported in August the rebels had been supplied with unspecified MANPADS, possibly initiated by Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar, which have repeatedly called for lending military support to the Syrian opposition.
Nuland said in mid-October she could not confirm whether the rebels had been supplied with such missiles, and maintained the United States was against the uncontrolled spread of MANPADS.
Russia has previously stated it regards the rebels' acquisition of MANPADS as a dangerous development.
In 2003, over 95 countries signed the Elements of Export Controls for MANPADS, which was later updated. A further agreement on restricting proliferation of MANPADS was signed in May 2004 by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including the United States.
While there has been no conclusive proof of use of MANPADS in Syria, various rebel groups have claimed they possess them, and videos posted on YouTube earlier this month appear to show rebels in Aleppo armed with Soviet-era SA-7 Strela missiles, the world's most widely-produced MANPADS weapon.
Several videos have also been posted appearing to show Mi-8 helicopters and MiG-23 fighter-bombers being shot down by Syrian rebels, although the weapons used appear to be heavy machine guns rather than surface-to-air missiles.
The US-made General Dynamics Stinger was supplied in the hundreds to the Mujahideen forces in Afghanistan during the Soviet Union's military campaign in the 1980s, and made a radical impact on the use of Soviet air power there, according to the then-head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, Mohammed Yousaf, who was involved in supplying them.
The US Central Intelligence Agency later set up a "buy-back" operation in a bid to recover the weapons after the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, amid concern that the weapons could be used by radical Islamist groups to shoot down a civilian airliner.
MANPADS are shoulder-launched missiles which can be carried and fired by one person. Usually guided by infra-red seekers that home in on an aircraft's engine heat, they can often hit targets as high as 13,000 feet at a range of up to a few miles, and are especially dangerous to large and slow aircraft like civilian airliners and helicopters. Several civilian aircraft have been shot down with MANPADS since the late 1970s.
The Syrian conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives, according to various Syrian opposition groups. The UN puts the death toll at 20,000-30,000 people.
The West is pushing for President Assad’s ouster while Russia and China are trying to prevent outside interference in Syria, saying that the Assad regime and the opposition are both to blame for the bloodshed. Veto-wielding Moscow and Beijing have three times blocked sanctions resolutions on Syria.