Putin holds back on Syria missile delivery

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Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Moscow has held back on delivering sophisticated S-300 missiles to the Syrian regime, while UN investigators said they have “reasonable grounds” to believe both sides in the conflict have used chemical weapons.

Putin, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said Russia has so far refrained from supplying the powerful S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Assad’s regime for fear of upsetting the delicate balance of power in the volatile region.

His remarks came as fighting raged on in Syria’s besieged city of Qusayr, with both sides battling for control of the strategic post, and as US, Russian and UN representatives prepared to meet in Geneva on Wednesday to hammer out details of proposed peace talks.

Putin — who has used Russia’s veto at the UN Security Council to shield Assad’s regime from repeated attempts to impose UN sanctions — said Moscow had already signed a contract to deliver S-300s.

But he appeared to back down from Moscow’s earlier insistence that the missiles would be a “stabilizing factor” that could deter foreign intervention in Syria.

“The contract was signed several years ago. It has not been realized yet,” Putin said at a joint press conference with European Union leaders in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg.

“We do not want to upset the balance in the region.”

The weapon could theoretically shoot down Israeli jets and harm any Western military support missions.

But Putin warned the West and Arab states allied to the opposition that any attempt to resolve the crisis through outside force was “doomed to failure.”

Syria’s civil war, which has already cost more than 94,000 lives in 26 months of fighting, has threatened in recent weeks to turn even more dire with reports that chemical weapons — albeit in small amounts — had been used by both sides.

UN investigators in Geneva added to those suspicions Tuesday by reporting they had reason to believe chemical weapons had been used by both Assad’s troops and rebels fighting them.

“Allegations have been received concerning the use of chemical weapons by both parties,” said the Commission of Enquiry on Syria in a report to the UN Human Rights Council.

There are “reasonable grounds to believe that chemical agents have been used as weapons,” added the investigators.

It was the first time the commission — tasked with probing human rights violations in Syria since 2011 — added the suspected use of chemical weapons to its long list of war crimes committed in the country.

The commission also called for Damascus to grant full access to Syria for another group of experts tasked by UN chief Ban Ki-moon with investigating the possible use of chemical weapons, who have been barred by the regime.

Commission member Carla del Ponte, a high-profile former war crimes prosecutor, warned however that focusing too heavily on chemical weapons could overshadow the overall suffering in the country.

The report was released as diplomats from Washington and Moscow as well as the United Nations prepared to meet in Geneva on Wednesday to try to hammer out terms that could get Assad’s camp and the rebels to negotiate directly for the first time.

Putin himself said the chances of the proposed peace conference taking place were being harmed by reports of atrocities such as those captured on a video apparently showing a rebel eating the body parts of a slain Syrian soldier.

“I hope that such participants of the negotiations do not appear” at the proposed Geneva talks, Putin said.

“It would be hard to work with such people,” deadpanned the Russian leader, known for his black humor.

Uncertainty in recent days over whether Russia had in fact delivered S-300s to Syria had further strained Moscow’s already tense relations with regional governments and the West.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a special visit to Russia last month to convince Moscow not to make the shipments.

US Secretary of State John Kerry also voiced concern.

– Warplanes pound Qusayr –

The latest fighting on the ground saw a missile strike near Syria’s biggest city Aleppo kill 26 people and government warplanes pound Qusayr.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were numerous dead on both sides but gave no other details.

The Observatory also said shellfire near the Russian embassy in Damascus had killed a civilian and wounded a member of the security forces.

A representative of the Russian embassy in Damascus told AFP two Syrian security guards had received injuries but that no embassy staff had been killed or hurt in the attack.

US-based group Human Rights Watch meanwhile said its mission to Aleppo had concluded that the bodies of 147 men pulled out of a local river between January and March were “probably” executed in government-controlled areas of the northern city.

Chemical weapons use in Syria reaching ‘new levels of brutality’: UN

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A UN report on Syria says limited quantities of unknown chemical agents have been used in at least four attacks in a civil war that has reached “new levels of brutality.” It said there’s proof of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Commission of Inquiry on Syria, tasked since 2011 with investigating human rights violations, said it had “reasonable grounds” to believe rebels have used toxic agents, although the “majority” of attacks were probably committed by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Commission inquiry chair Paulo Pinheiro told reporters in Geneva that investigators could not “determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator.” Conclusive proof may be obtained from test samples taken from victims or the soil of suspected areas, but so far Damascus has barred a team of experts from the country.

The UN report came as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius claimed to have conclusive evidence sarin gas was used in Syria. Laboratory tests there “prove the presence of sarin in the samples in our possession,” he said in a Tuesday statement cited by the Associated Press, saying it “now is certain that sarin gas was used in Syria multiple times and in a localized way.”

The statement did not get into whom is believed responsible for using the deadly nerve agent in Syria, according to France24, but did say “[i]t would be unacceptable that those guilty of these crimes benefit from impunity.” Also Tuesday, Britain said it had also found evidence of sarin gas use in Syria, reported AP.

The UN report, without much detail, lists the time and locations of four alleged chemical attacks: The Khan al-Asal neighborhood of Aleppo and Uteibah, both on March 19, the Sheikh Maqsood district of Aleppo on April 13, and on the northwestern town of Saraqab on April 29.

Syria’s UN ambassador Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui dismissed the report, saying the commission “excessively exaggerated their conclusions and outcomes” and “totally neglects the substantial events, or even marginalizes them.”

Commission member Carla del Ponte, a former war crimes prosecutor, warned that the issue of chemical agents could overshadow the mass suffering of Syrians in a war that has killed more than 94,000 people and displaced millions.

“We have so many deaths in Syria now… so please don’t make the use of chemical weapons in Syria now the most important issue,” she told reporters. The UN report says at least 17 new massacres are under review, which makes a total of 30 since September.

“The war in Syria is a major catastrophe of our time,” Pinheiro said. “Syria is in free-fall,” and “brutality has become a tactic of war,” including forcing child hostages to witness torture, and 86 child combatants killed.

The report comes a day after US Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States had arrived “late” to the Syrian peace process, with political unrest now quickly escalating in neighboring Turkey. “This is a very difficult process, which we come too late,” Kerry said after a State Department meeting with Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski.

“We are trying to prevent the sectarian violence from dragging Syria down into a complete and total implosion where it has broken up into enclaves, and the institutions of the state have been destroyed, with God knows how many additional refugees and how many innocent people killed,” Kerry added.

The UN commission urged the international community to find a diplomatic solution that would include all Syrians, and called on world leaders to restrict arms sales feeding the war, despite a recently lifted EU arms embargo on Syria and Russia’s sale of the S-300 surface-to-air missile defense system to Damascus. It’s unclear when those missiles will arrive.

Qusayr captured: Syria’s army regains control of strategic town

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Qusayr, a strategically important town in Syria, has been recaptured by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who are being aided by Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

The town — located along major supply routes in between Damascus and the Mediterranean — was the center of intense clashes between the two sides over the past two weeks.

Syrian TV reported that the rebels withdrew overnight, and had suffered large casualties in the battle. Many also surrendered during the final offensive by the government’s forces.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organization, also confirmed that Qusayr had fallen based on reports from activists and medics on the ground.

“The army and Hezbollah have succeeded in taking Qusayr after an intense bombardment of the town overnight,” the Observatory said. “The rebels have withdrawn to other areas because they were short of ammunition.”

The Army said in a statement that their recapturing of Qusayr sends “a clear message to all those who share in the aggression on Syria … that we will continue our string of victories until we regain every inch of Syrian land.”

“We will not hesitate to crush with an iron fist those who attack us. … Their fate is surrender or death,” the statement added.

Syria’s bloody two-year civil war has left upwards of 80,000 people dead, and has spilled over into neighboring countries both in its sparking of sectarian violence and the thousands of displaced Syrians seeking refuge.

Fighting was still ongoing in Dabaa and Buweida Al Sharqiya, the last village in the area under rebel control.

US to send Patriot missiles, F-16s to Jordan for drill

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The United States will send a Patriot missile battery and F-16 fighters to Jordan for a military drill and may keep the weapons there to counter the threat posed by Syria’s civil war, officials said Monday.

The Patriot missile launchers and F-16 warplanes “were approved for deployment to Jordan as part of Exercise Eager Lion,” said Lieutenant Colonel T.G. Taylor, spokesman for US Central Command based in Tampa, Florida.

“In order to enhance the defensive posture and capacity of Jordan, some of these assets may remain beyond the exercise at the request of the Government of Jordan,” Taylor said in a statement.

US officials declined to say how many F-16 fighter jets would be taking part in the joint exercise or how many aircraft might stay in Jordan afterwards.

The United States backed a similar move earlier this year in Turkey, with the NATO alliance deploying Patriot missile batteries along Turkey’s volatile border with Syria.

The deployment of a Patriot anti-missile battery comes after warnings from Washington to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime against shipping advanced missiles to militants in Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite group, which is now openly taking part in the war in support of Damascus.

Israel has carried out air strikes in Syria in a bid to disrupt the possible delivery of missiles to the Hezbollah movement.

The decision to possibly station F-16s and missile batteries in Jordan will fuel speculation on a potential US military intervention, which the White House so far has described as a remote possibility.

“Given our strong alliance with Jordan and in light of circumstances in the region and escalating violence along Jordan’s borders, if requested some (weapons) may remain beyond the conclusion of the exercise to assist the Jordanian armed forces,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

“But no decision has been made yet on that,” she told reporters.

Jordan has hosted two previous “Eager Lion” exercises, involving more than 19 countries, including the United States.

The US Patriot batteries are designed to shoot down Scud or other short-range missiles, known to be in the Assad regime’s arsenal, and could also be employed as part of a no-fly-zone or other air operation.

The Pentagon already has sent about 200 troops to Jordan, including an element of a US Army headquarters, to help the country prepare for possible military action in Syria, including scenarios to secure the regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

Fighting raged Monday in Syria, with regime aircraft pounding the embattled town of Qusayr near the border with Lebanon, in a three-week-old offensive backed by Hezbollah forces.

Syria: Hundreds of Tawheed brigade Syrian rebels enter the besieged city of Qusair

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Hundreds of rebels from northern Syria managed to enter the besieged city of Qusair on Friday, activists said, to help opposition forces battling government troops backed by the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said hundreds of fighters from the Tawheed brigade, an Islamist group that is powerful in Aleppo in the north, had entered the town.

The brigade confirmed the report on its Facebook page.

The two-week battle for Qusair is aimed at securing supply routes near the Syrian-Lebanese frontier, which both sides accuse the other of using to bolster their forces inside Syria.

Russian S-300 missiles haven’t made it to Syria, but MiG fighter jets might

Russian media reports suggested the S-300 missiles have not made it into Assad’s hands yet, but fighter jets might be.

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Russia has not yet delivered the rumored S-300 air defense missile systems to Syria, Russian media reports said Friday.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who can count Moscow as his last remaining ally, seemed to imply on Thursday that part of the controversial shipment had arrived, without referring to the missiles by name.

The S-300 missiles would make a no-fly zone in Syrian air space particularly hard to establish, and would make it possible to shoot down aircrafts in the air above neighbors Turkey and Israel.

A source close to the Defense Ministry in Moscow reportedly said the “hardware itself” had not arrived yet, though the contract was still in place, Reuters reported.

Sources quoted by Russian outlets Kommersant and Vedomosti also said that no delivery of missiles had taken place. Vedomosti said the S-300 contract was worth $1 billion and was agreed upon in 2010.

More from GlobalPost: US woman among 3 Westerners killed fighting for Syrian rebels

Meanwhile, Russia aircraft maker MiG said Friday that it planned to sign an agreement that would send 10 fighter jets to Syria. Sergei Korotkov, MiG’s director general, said a delegation from Syria was discussing the contract for the MiG-29 M/M2 fighters, according to the Associated Press.

The AP noted that he could be referring to a previous deal that was put on hold during Syria’s civil war.

The war between Assad’s troops and Syrian rebels has claimed more than 80,000 people according to United Nations estimates, and the conflict is threatening to spill over the country’s borders.

The UN Security Council on Friday blacklisted Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the rebel factions fighting against Assad, as an alias of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The decision will place the extremist group under sanctions including an arms embargo, a freeze on assets and a travel ban.

Jabhat al-Nusra was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in December 2012.

Syria: Heavy clashes between soldiers and rebels around the town of Qusair near Lebanon border

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Syrian troops backed by pro-government gunmen fought fierce battles with rebels on Saturday in a strategic area in Homs province near the Lebanese border, activists and state media in Damascus reported.

The latest fighting came as U.S. officials said the Obama administration was poised to send millions more in non-lethal military aid to rebels trying to oust President Bashar Assad.

The clashes around the contested town of Qusair, close to the Syria-Lebanon boundary, had intensified over the past two weeks amid a fresh offensive by the Syrian army and a pro-government militia known as Popular Committees, backed by the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group.