MOSCOW -- Russia will keep supplying weapons to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime despite the country's escalating civil war, the head of Russia's state arms trader said Wednesday.
Russia on Wednesday also held out the prospect of bringing the two sides in the Syrian conflict together for talks in Moscow. Mikhail Bogdanov, a deputy foreign minister and special envoy to the Middle East, said Syria's foreign minister and the leader of the Syrian National Coalition are expected in Moscow in two to three weeks. He said no date for either visit has been set.
"We are prepared to provide the venue for Syrian talks if they want to meet in Moscow," Bogdanov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.
Anatoly Isaikin, the director of Rosoboronexport, said Russia sees no need to stop its arms trade with Syria as the trade isn't prohibited by the United Nations. He dismissed western criticism of Russian arms sales to Assad's regime, saying his company has only delivered defensive weapons.
"In the absence of sanctions, we are continuing to fulfil our contract obligations," Isaikin said at a news conference. "But these aren't offensive weapons. We are mostly shipping air defence systems and repair equipment intended for various branches of the military."
Moscow has been the main protector of Assad's beleaguered regime, joining with China at the UN Security Council to block attempts to impose sanctions on Assad amid a civil war in which more than 60,000 people have died.
For more than four decades, Syria has been Moscow's top ally in the region and has received billions of dollars' worth of missiles, combat jets, tanks, artillery and other military gear. It's the last Kremlin ally in the Middle East and hosts the only naval base Russia has outside the former Soviet Union.
As the rebel offensive against Assad has intensified, the Kremlin has sought to distance itself from Assad, signalling it is resigned to him eventually losing power. But Moscow has continued to oppose sanctions against Damascus and warned the fall of Assad's regime could plunge Syria even deeper into violence and also encourage the rise of extremist groups across the region.
Alexei Pushkov, the Kremlin-connected head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament's lower house, said Wednesday Assad's downfall would create a "second Afghanistan" and reaffirmed Russia would continue to reject the calls for the Syrian ruler's resignation as a precondition for peace talks.
Russia has bristled at western demands to stop providing Assad with arms, arguing its weapons trade with Damascus doesn't contradict international law. In June, a Russian-operated ship carrying helicopter gunships and air-defence missiles was forced to turn back to Russia after its British insurer cancelled coverage for the vessel.
Russia said the vessel was carrying three refurbished helicopters belonging to Syria, and criticized Britain for forcing the ship to turn back, saying it wouldn't abide by European sanctions against the Assad regime.
The helicopters were repaired and sent back to Syria by a different Russian firm, and Isaikin insisted his company hasn't shipped any combat planes or helicopters to Syria.
He said more deliveries will be conducted under existing contracts, but refused to give specifics.
Isaikin said his company has a contract with Syria to deliver Yak-130 combat jets but so far has not shipped any. He didn't explain why no deliveries have been made.
Russian media reported last year the contract was for 36 Yak-130s worth $550 million.
Isaikin didn't mention any other weapons systems which his company has delivered to Syria or is planning to ship in the future. But the Russian media said they included Pantsyr-S1 and Buk-M2 air defence systems and Bastion anti-ship missile system.
-- The Associated Press