MOSCOW, May 30 (RIA Novosti) – Reports that Syria’s president had confirmed receiving a consignment of Russian-manufactured S-300 air defense systems emerged Thursday, but were quickly brought into question.
In comments widely reported across the world, Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar quoted Syrian President Bashar Assad as saying Damascus had received initial deliveries of the S-300 system.
Assad's remarks were allegedly made during a pre-recorded interview to be aired on Hezbollah-controlled Almanar television channel on Thursday evening at 10:00 p.m. Moscow time.
But a high-level source at Lebanon-based Almanar, who said he had been present throughout the interview, told RIA Novosti by telephone that at no point did Assad explicitly confirm any S-300 deliveries.
When Assad was asked about the delivery of the anti-missile systems, the source – who requested that his name not be printed – said, the Syrian president replied that “everything we have agreed with Russia will be implemented, and a part of it has been implemented already.”
By Thursday afternoon, the Al Akhbar newspaper, which reported Assad's comments as an exclusive, appeared to backtrack on the veracity of its story, which also included a statement attributed to Assad that the rest of the S-300 equipment "will arrive soon."
The Assad quotes were "professionally stolen" through sources at Almanar and any information provided by the television station is more reliable, an Al Akhbar employee told RIA Novosti in a telephone interview, also requesting anonymity.
Documents revealing the existence of an agreement between Russia and Syria to supply the sophisticated S-300 air defense system, which can target ballistic missiles as well as aircraft, were first reported in the Russian press in 2011, but official confirmations have been scant. However, earlier this week Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov mentioned the deal’s existence, according to Russian media, saying a contract for providing Syria with S-300s had been signed “several years ago.”
Reached by telephone Thursday, Russian state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport declined to comment on whether elements of the S-300 system had been successfully delivered to Syria.
The shipment of the S-300s is a source of contention between Moscow and Washington. Last week US Secretary of State John Kerry said the presence of the anti-missile systems in Syria would be “destabilizing” for the region.
Russian officials publicly refuse to confirm or deny the S-300 deliveries, but argue that they would be legal under international law and would help to contain the Syrian conflict.
Steps such as the delivery of S-300s are restraining some "hot heads" from turning the Syrian conflict into an international conflict with the participation of outside forces, Ryabkov said Tuesday.
S-300 missile systems, which are capable of simultaneously tracking up to 100 targets while engaging 12 at a range of up to 200 kilometers and a height of up to 27 kilometers, could dramatically raise the risks of a potential airstrike against Syrian targets.
Israeli jets have reportedly launched attacks on Syria, including the capital Damascus, several times this year. Tel Aviv said recent strikes in May were targeted at weapons being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon, according to Western news agencies.