SYRIA-RUSSIA:Russia defends Syria arms flow, sees no talks soon
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia defended its weapons deliveries to Syria in the face of Western criticism on Monday, saying government forces need to defend themselves against rebels receiving arms from abroad.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Russia sees little chance of dialogue between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government and its adversaries any time soon, and urged the West to do more to coax the opposition into talks.
He made clear Moscow is in no rush to write off a ceasefire brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan despite persistent bloodshed, much of which he blamed on "terrorist groups" including al Qaeda.
Russia has shielded Assad by blocking two U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning his government for 14 months of violence but has firmly backed Annan's peace plan, which calls for a political dialogue to follow a full ceasefire.
With violence showing no let-up, the United States and other nations have urged Russia to stop sending light weapons to Syria. But Gatilov reiterated Russia's statements that its deliveries do not violate international law.
"We do not supply any offensive weapons, we are talking only about defensive weapons," Gatilov told journalists.
He said Russia exercises "restraint" but added that "when there is massive support of the opposition with weapons ... to leave the Syrian government without the means to defend itself would also probably not be right."
Gatilov did not give details about what weapons Russia supplies Syria, but said it has not been delivering tanks.
$1 BILLION ARMS SHIPMENT
Russia sold its main Middle East ally Damascus nearly $1 billion worth of arms including surface-to-air missile systems last year. Syrian government defectors say shipments of hard-to-track Russian small weapons have risen since the uprising against Assad started in March 2011.
The uprising began as a peaceful protest movement but has become increasingly militarised as rebels began to fight back against a violent crackdown by Assad's forces.
More than 9,000 people have been killed by security forces, who the government says have lost 2,600 at rebel hands.
Hundreds of people have been killed since April 12, the day the ceasefire organised by Annan was to take effect.
But Gatilov said that despite continuing violence "the situation has improved to a certain degree" since the arrival later in April of the first unarmed U.N. observers in a group of 300 that is to deployed in full by the end of May.
Russia has repeatedly called for dialogue between the government and its opponents and said Assad's exit from power must not be a precondition for such talks. The opposition refuses to negotiate with Assad and Western nations want him out.
But because of divisions among Assad's opponents in addition to the continuing conflict on the ground, Russia sees "no prospects for success in getting both sides to the negotiating table in the near future", Gatilov said.
At the same time, he said the ceasefire and observer mission - both backed by the U.N. Security Council with Russian support - should be given more time to work before any new pressure from the council should be considered.
"The main thing now is to let the monitors deploy in full, and see how effectively they work," he said.