Missile Shipment To Syria Complicates Kerry's Push For Peace

Syrian President Bashar Assad says his country has received advanced missiles from Russia. The Russians say they are just fulfilling old contracts and argue that the S-300s are a defensive system that can't be used against rebels. But the timing of this shipment complicates Secretary of State John Kerry's work with Moscow on pushing for a peace conference. The U.S. and Russia seem to be working at cross purposes.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. With the civil war raging in Syria, the U.S. and Russia are making another attempt to get on the same page about how to stop it. Diplomats meet in Geneva next week to try to salvage plans for a June peace conference. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, have run into problems ever since they announced that conference.

It was supposed to bring Syrian government representatives to the negotiating table with opposition leaders but those opposition leaders say they won't come unless Bashar al-Assad steps aside. And Assad's forces seem emboldened these days, with support from Iran and Hezbollah, as well as Russia. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When Secretary of State John Kerry stood alongside his Russian counterpart in Moscow earlier this month, the two seemed to be trying to turn a new page on their dispute over Syria. But while they have a common goal, there doesn't seem to be much coordination, says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

DMITRI TRENIN: The warring sides just hate each other and the potential peacemakers have too much mistrust between them to work effectively.

KELEMEN: That lack of trust was obvious this week, with some of the tough rhetoric coming from Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov described as odious a U.S. co-sponsored resolution criticizing Syria at the U.N. Human Rights Council. He accused the Obama administration of ruining the atmosphere for peace talks simply by suggesting that the White House may, at some point, consider imposing a no-fly zone.

And Lavrov urged the Americans to persuade Syrian opposition figures to drop what he calls unrealistic demands, including that Assad step aside.

FOREIGN MINISTER SERGEY LAVROV: (Speaking foreign language)

KELEMEN: The opposition coalition and its regional partners give the impression that they're doing everything that they can to prevent a political process from starting, Lavrov complained, adding that they also seemed to be trying to bring about a military intervention. While Lavrov was lashing out at what he calls U.S. double standards, Secretary of State Kerry was essentially saying the same thing about Moscow.

Today at the State Department, Kerry was, again, pressing Russia not to arm the Syrian regime with advanced missiles that he says threaten Israel.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Whether it's an old contract or not, it has a profoundly negative impact on the balance of interests and the stability of the region and it does put Israel at risk. So we hope that they will refrain from that in the interest of making this peace process work.

KELEMEN: The big concern is over the S-300, which is Russia's top of the line long-range air defense system, according to Robert Hewson, editor of IHS Jane's Air-Launched Weapons.

ROBERT HEWSON: It is a feared and potentially very capable system. So it adds a whole new layer of complexity to anyone who is planning to be flying over downtown Damascus.

KELEMEN: Hewson says it will take time to get such a system in place and the Americans will know it if it ever becomes operational.

HEWSON: It's a mobile system, but in a way, it's quite difficult to hide because as soon as you switch it on, the United States and others who have the technical means to identify this kind of system will know straightaway that it's been switched on. The radars have a very distinctive signature.

KELEMEN: The Russians argue that the S-300s would help stabilize the situation by deterring any outside actor from trying to attack Syria or set up a no-fly zone. While at the moment, the U.S. and Russia seem to be working at cross purposes on this and other issues, Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center says there is one thing that unites them.

TRENIN: They really fear what comes next in Syria.

KELEMEN: He says they're both pragmatic about this. The U.S. and Russia are not the best partners, Trenin adds, but they are, as he puts it, necessary partners on Syria. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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