A senior Russian diplomat says Moscow plans to provide advanced air defenses to Damascus to deter foreign military action against Syria's pro-Russian government, which is embroiled in a civil war.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Tuesday the planned transfer of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be a "stabilizing factor" for the country. He told reporters that Moscow believes the sale will deter what he called "some hotheads" from considering options to send foreign forces to intervene in the Syrian conflict.
But Ryabkov gave no indication of when Russia will transfer the air defense system. Damascus signed a contract to buy it several years ago.
Israel and the United States have urged Russia not to proceed with the sale, fearing the air defense system will threaten Israeli security and complicate any military action they may take in Syria.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon toughened that message Tuesday, warning of possible retaliation if the Russian missile technology is transferred.
"Obviously from our perspective it is a threat at this stage. I cannot affirm that things have been expedited. The shipments are not on their way yet, this I can say. I hope they will not leave and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do."
Western sources say Israel carried out several air strikes in Syria earlier this month, apparently to stop the Syrian government from transferring sophisticated weapons to the pro-Assad Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the strikes.
The Russian deputy foreign minister also criticized an EU decision to lift an arms embargo on the main opposition Syrian National Coalition while maintaining sanctions against the Syrian government.
Ryabkov accused the 27-nation bloc of "pouring more fuel on the fire" of Syria's civil war and "damaging" prospects for a U.S. and Russian-proposed peace conference to resolve the two-year conflict.
In separate remarks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Western powers of carrying out a "whole range of actions" that undermine the idea of the conference.
Syria's foreign ministry issued a harsher criticism of the EU, accusing it of supporting "terrorists" in violation of international law and obstructing international efforts to find a political solution to the fighting.
The EU decided to lift the embargo on Syrian rebels at a meeting in Brussels on Monday. But, EU officials gave mixed messages about when such weapons transfers might begin.
Some officials said EU members agreed to delay any arming of the rebels until after August 1 to allow the U.S.-Russian peace initiative to proceed. But British and French officials said Tuesday there is no requirement to wait until August to send weapons, although they reiterated that their governments have no immediate plans to do so.
White House spokesman Jay Carney praised the EU action as a show of support for the Syrian opposition.
Syrian National Coalition spokesman Louay also welcomed the lifting of the EU embargo as a "positive step," but warned that its impact may come too late to stop pro-Assad forces from killing civilians.
Meanwhile, there were more signs of Syria's conflict spilling over into Lebanon with deadly results. Lebanese security sources said several rockets fired from Syria struck the northeastern Lebanese town of Hermel near the Syrian border on Tuesday, killing a woman and wounding several other people. Hermel's Shi'ite population supports Hezbollah militants who have crossed into Syria to fight alongside Mr. Assad's troops.
Lebanese authorities said unidentified gunmen also killed three Lebanese soldiers at a checkpoint near the northeastern village of Arsal before dawn Tuesday. Lebanese Sunnis have used border villages such as Arsal to send weapons and fighters into Syria to help the country's predominantly Sunni rebels fight the Assad government and Hezbollah.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman denounced the shooting attack on the soldiers as part of a "series of terrorist and criminal acts that seek to sow civil unrest" in the country.
Western-backed Syrian rebel commander General Salim Idris warned Hezbollah to stop fighting in Syria or face attacks by Free Syrian Army forces on its bases inside Lebanon.