Middle East
4:12 pm
Wed June 13, 2012

U.S., Russia Accused Of Arming Opposite Syrian Sides

Originally published on Wed June 13, 2012 6:32 pm

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The U.S. and Russia are engaged in a new war of words over arms shipments to Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she has information that Russian attack helicopters are on their way there. She warns this will mark an escalation in Syria's offensive against rebel forces and anti-government protesters.

Russia, for its part, insists that its shipments don't violate international law. What is clear, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, is that this debate is hampering efforts to resolve the Syria crisis.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: On a trip to Iran, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, dismissed Clinton's allegations, saying Russia is only fulfilling its contracts and is only supplying Syria with anti-aircraft defenses. As he put it, nothing we're delivering to Syria could be used against peaceful demonstrators. But Clinton's team is standing by her allegation and the secretary is repeating her call on Russia to stop shipping any weapons to Bashar al-Assad's regime.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: We have repeatedly urged the Russian government to cut these military ties completely and to suspend all further support and delivery.

KELEMEN: Her spokesperson says Assad's military has been using helicopters against civilians all over Syria. An analyst who's been following this, Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agrees. He says there's a dangerous dynamic that is driving up the death toll, a more emboldened opposition and a Syrian government trying to regain control of towns.

ANDREW TABLER: So they tried shelling, then they tried to send in the Shabiha irregular forces. That also didn't work, so now they're resorting to helicopter gunships as well to coordinate that activity.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

KELEMEN: Activists have been posting videos like this one from the eastern city of Deir Az Zor to show how Syrians are using helicopters now. Russian officials say Syria has Soviet-made helicopters and that Moscow hasn't sold new ones to Syria in years. And Russia complains that weapons are flowing much more freely now to the opposition in Syria, which is fueling the conflict as well. Tabler says there are signs that anti-tank weapons are making their way into Syria and light arms continue to flow in from Turkey and Lebanon.

TABLER: The Free Syrian Army is becoming more effective against the regime. Its arms pale in comparison to that of the state, but it's able to carry out attacks - including attacks inside of Damascus.

KELEMEN: At the State Department, Secretary Clinton made clear the U.S. is not arming the opposition.

CLINTON: The United States has provided no military support to the Syrian opposition - none.

KELEMEN: She says the U.S. is focusing on humanitarian aid and wants to see Russia do more to back international envoy Kofi Annan and his peace plan, which Russia says it supports.

CLINTON: It also claims to have vital interests in the region and relationships that it wants to continue to keep. They put all of that at risk if they do not move more constructively right now.

KELEMEN: Foreign Minister Lavrov seems unimpressed by such arguments, as we hear in these remarks carried and interpreted by the English language channel Russia Today.

SERGEI LAVROV: (Through interpreter) Everyone should stop the violence in Syria. If a part of the international community understands Kofi Annan's plan only as a demand for Russia to make the Syrian leadership stop fighting, then I declare that this is a provocation.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton says instead of having what she calls this long distance debate, she's hoping the U.S. and Russia can come together around Kofi Annan's plan. But that doesn't seem to be going well, says Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

TABLER: Normally by now, if things were diplomatically going in the right direction, I think Clinton would have been much more guarded. And we'll see if this is brinkmanship or if this is actually something that, you know, will signal a formal split between Russia and the U.S. on this matter.

KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton says she's worked well with Russia on many issues, but clearly not on Syria, which she says is spiraling into greater violence. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.