Assad warns Israel, 'sure about victory'

| Thursday, May 30, 2013, 9:42 p.m.

Syrian President Bashar Assad boasted in an interview broadcast on Thursday that he is “confident in victory,” threatened to retaliate for any Israeli airstrike on his territory and suggested that Syria may have received the first shipment of advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles.

Assad told the Lebanese Al-Manar, a pro-Hezbollah television station, that Russia has fulfilled some of its weapons contracts, but he was vague on whether this included advanced S-300 air defense systems.

Israel, which has carried out three airstrikes on Syria to stop the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, a Shiite terrorist group, has warned it would regard the Russian missiles as a serious threat to its security.

But Assad said he expected the Kremlin to fulfill the order.

“All our agreements with Russia will be implemented, and parts of them have already been implemented,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Al-Manar had sent text messages to reporters with what it said was an excerpt from the interview.

The station quoted Assad as saying Syria had received a first shipment of such missiles, causing a flurry of headlines around the world.

Analysts told The Guardian newspaper in Britain that it was possible some elements of the S-300 system – launchers perhaps – had arrived but doubted the system was operational.

Israeli officials told McClatchy Newspapers that they had no indications that the anti-aircraft system had reached Syria and that even if the Kremlin were to speed delivery, it would take weeks.

“This isn't something that it airlifted in overnight. This is something that moves slowly, over international waters, until it reaches a Syrian port,” one Israeli defense official said under the condition of anonymity. “This is a sophisticated system that you can't sneak around or hide.”

Russia's S-300 missiles are considered a game-changer. Not only can the surface-to-air missile system target aircraft, it can engage ballistic missiles.

Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, a former Israeli adviser, told The Guardian, “If we do something soon after the transfer, we might have business not only with Syria but with the Russians. This is a real hot potato.”

This month, Israel struck near Damascus, targeting suspected shipments of advanced weapons purportedly intended for Hezbollah. Syria did not respond at the time.

Assad said he informed other countries that Syria would respond next time. “If we are going to retaliate against Israel, this retaliation should be a strategic response.”

He also said there was “popular pressure” to open a military front against Israel in the Golan Heights.

The Syrian leader, who appeared animated and gestured frequently in the TV interview, said he has been confident from the start of the conflict that he would be able to defeat his opponents.

“Had we not had this confidence, we wouldn't have been able to fight in this battle for two years, facing an international attack,” he said. Assad, however, discounted the importance of Hezbollah's presence in Syria, saying the number of fighters the Lebanese group sent was a “drop in the ocean.”

“We are confident and sure about victory, and I confirm that Syria will stay as it was,” he said.

He took a swipe at Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey who have been meeting to sort out whether to add members to their coalition and to decide on new leaders and a government-in-exile. The Supreme Military Council, which is backed by countries supporting the Syrian opposition with weapons and non-lethal aid, denounced the inability of the Syrian Opposition Coalition to reach a decision and demanded that it be given 50 percent of the seats in a new coalition.

“Whom do they represent?” Assad asked.

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