Lebanese media say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has acknowledged receiving a first shipment of a Russian air defense system that could help him to deter foreign military intervention in his conflict with rebels.
The reports say Assad claimed to have received the S-300 air defense shipment while speaking with Lebanese TV station Al-Manar in an interview to be broadcast later Thursday. Al-Manar is run by pro-Assad Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
There was no independent confirmation of Assad's reported claim and no immediate Russian comment. If confirmed, the delivery of the sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missiles would represent a major upgrade to Syria's air defenses.
Russia, a longtime Assad ally, has promised to go ahead with the long-delayed sale of the air defense system, saying it would help Syria to prevent military strikes by anti-Assad foreign forces.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon suggested this week that Israel may destroy the S-300s if they are delivered. Israel fears its airspace could be within the range of the surface-to-air missiles, which also could limit its ability to carry out air strikes in Syria to stop weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah.
In another development, Syria's main opposition coalition said Thursday it will not take part in a U.S. and Russian-proposed peace conference aimed at finding a political solution to Syria's two-year conflict.
Syrian National Coalition spokesmen said talk of holding such a conference in Geneva next month is "meaningless" in light of what they see as ongoing brutal attacks on the Syrian people by Assad's forces and their Hezbollah and Iranian allies.
The Assad government has agreed, in principle, to attend peace talks with the opposition. But, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Wednesday Assad will remain president at least until the 2014 elections and may run for another term. The SNC has demanded that Assad step down at the start of any transition process.
Bob Bowker, a Middle East specialist and professor at the Australian National University, told VOA neither side is likely to look for a political settlement as long as it believes it can win the conflict.
"And at this moment, the regime certainly believes it will ultimately prevail," Bowker said. "The rebels are a long way from acknowledging that they are not going to win. Each of the contending parties has sufficient external support to keep on going for quite a long time."
Russia's foreign minister criticized the Syrian National Coalition for demanding Assad's removal as a precondition for talks. Speaking Thursday, Sergei Lavrov said Moscow believes the SNC is doing everything it can to prevent a political process from starting.
Analyst Peter Harling of the International Crisis group says that Russia's President Putin is playing a delicate balancing act, being on the one hand the most pro-Israeli leader that Russia has known while on the other stepping up his support for the Syrian regime which is long hostile to Israel.
Harling says that for the time being, the Russians and the Israelis are privately sending reassuring messages to each other.
Rights activists have estimated that the 26-month Syrian conflict has killed at least 80,000 people.
VOA's Edward Yeranian in Cairo contributed to this report
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