The United States said it has no plans to provide portable rocket launchers to Syrian rebels, dismissing rhetoric from Russia after Moscow warned that such weapons might fall into the hands of Islamic militants.
"Our position on MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems) has not changed. We would have very deep concern about that kind of weaponry getting into Syria," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on December 27, referring to shoulder-fired launchers that can be carried by a single person and used to shoot down airplanes.
"We're not providing any kind of MANPADS...to the Syrian opposition," Toner said.
He spoke after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raised the matter with Secretary of State John Kerry in a phone call on December 27, and after Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mentioned the weapons in an accusatory statement lashing out at President Barack Obama's administration over a defense spending bill Obama signed on December 23.
A provision of the National Defense Authorization Act bars the U.S. Defense Department from spending funds on MANPADS for Syrian rebel groups until the secretaries of state and defense submit a report to congressional committees explaining the decision. The report would have to specify which groups would receive the weapons, how many and what kind, and also include intelligence analyses on the groups.
Russia, however, suggested that the law would make it more likely for extremists to acquire portable rocket launchers.
"It is impossible for the Obama administration not to understand that such weapons will quickly end up in the hands of jihadists with whom the ostensibly 'moderate' opposition has long acted as one. It's possible that they are even counting on that happening," Zakharova said in the statement on December 27, adding that "this can be called nothing other than abetting terrorists."
She said that such weapons deliveries would pose a "direct threat" to Russian warplanes, military personnel, and diplomatic staff in Syria.
"For this reason, we see this as a hostile step," it said.
Zakharova said in the statement that "the Americans have rejected full-fledged cooperation with us in the fight against terrorists."
But U.S. officials have accused Russia of failing to follow through on previous cease-fire deals in Syria and say most of Russia's military operations there have targeted rebels rather than the Islamic State (IS) extremists the United States is combatting with its own air campaign.
Russia has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad throughout a nearly six-year civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people since it erupted following a government crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011. A campaign of air strikes Russia has conducted since September 2015 has helped Assad avoid defeat and take territory such as the eastern part of the city of Aleppo from the rebels.
With reporting by Reuters, TASS, and Sputnik News