MOSCOW -- Russian officials on Friday defended the country's weapons sales to Syria, saying the country is primarily providing defense systems that are in line with international treaties.
Responding to news reports that Russia has sent advanced anti-ship cruise missiles to Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he did not understand why the media were making an issue of the sales.
"We haven't concealed that we have been supplying weapons to Syria based on signed contracts without violating any international treaties or Russian legislation, one of the strictest in the world in terms of export control," Lavrov said at a news conference at the Black Sea resort area of Sochi after meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
"We are primarily supplying defensive weapons, antiaircraft systems," he continued, weapons that he said "don't upset the balance of forces in the region and don't create advantages in the struggle against the opposition."
The New York Times reported Thursday that Russia had outfitted recent supplies to Syria of its Yakhont missiles with advanced radar that makes them more effective -- a move that could make more difficult any international effort to establish a "no-fly" zone over Syria, carry out airstrikes on President Bashar Assad's regime or supply Syrian rebels by sea.
U.S. officials would like Russia and Iran to curtail weapons shipments to Syria, which they fear encourage Assad to believe he can defeat the rebellion militarily.
News of the recent shipments comes as U.S. and Russian officials are trying to organize a conference next month that would bring representatives of Syria's government and rebel groups to the negotiating table. But President Obama reaffirmed at a news conference Thursday that he has little interest in taking military action, including a no-fly zone.
Igor Korotchenko, editor in chief of Russia's monthly National Defense journal, told the Los Angeles Times the Yakhonts are designed for full-scale combat activities at sea.
"The cruise missiles, which fly at supersonic speeds only a few yards over the sea surface, are powerful defensive weapons should the U.S.A., NATO or Israeli ships attack Syria from the sea," Korotchenko said. "But they are of no use in fighting against the opposition."
He added that Russia's contract with Syria prohibits Assad's government from selling the missile systems to a third party and allows Russian inspectors to verify the weapons' whereabouts.
"There is absolutely no danger that these systems may end up in the hands of Hezbollah or any other such groups and organizations," he said.