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U.S. Says Russia Sending Attack Helicopters To Syria

Secretary of State Clinton yesterday accused Russia of providing Syria with weapons that could make the ongoing conflict in that country even more of a human rights disaster than it has been so far:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Tuesday that the United States believed that Russia was shipping attack helicopters to Syria that President Bashar al-Assad could use to escalate his government’s deadly crackdown on civilians and the militias battling his rule. Her comments reflected rising frustration with Russia, which has continued to supply weapons to its major Middle Eastern ally despite an international outcry over the government’s brutal crackdown.

“We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria,” Mrs. Clinton said at an appearance with President Shimon Peres of Israel. “They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn’t worry; everything they’re shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That’s patently untrue.”

Russia insists that it provides Damascus only with weapons that can be used in self-defense.

(…)

Administration officials declined to give details about the helicopters, saying the information was classified. But Pentagon sources suggested that Mrs. Clinton, in her remarks at a Brookings Institution event, was referring to a Russian-made attack helicopter that Syria already owns but has not yet deployed to crack down on opposition forces. While these helicopters, known as Mi-24s, are flown by Syrian pilots, Russia supplies spare parts and provides maintenance for them.

A Pentagon spokesman, Capt. John Kirby, said the precise status of the helicopters was not as important as the violence being directed against opponents of the Syrian government. “The focus really needs to be more on what the Assad regime is doing to its own people than the cabinets and the closets to which they turn to pull stuff out.” Captain Kirby said. “It’s really about what they’re doing with what they’ve got in their hand.”

The use of helicopters is contributing to a growing sense that, as Hervé Ladsous, the head of United Nations peacekeeping operations, put it, the fighting could be characterized as a civil war.

“The government of Syria lost some large chunks of territories and several cities to the opposition and wants to retake control of these areas,” Mr. Ladsous said at the United Nations. “So now we have confirmed reports not only of the use of tanks and artillery, but also attack helicopters.”

The shift to an air-based strategy by the Syrians seems to be a response to the fact that Syrian rebels have recently come into possession of anti-tank weapons that have had at least some impact on the effectiveness of the Syrian Army’s ground attacks. The question at this point is whether this shift to an air-based strategy will lead to some kind of response from the West, especially if it starts resulting in massive civilian casualties due to air assaults.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Phillip says:

    The question at this point is whether this shift to an air-based strategy will lead to some kind of response from the West

    Something hypocritical, no doubt.

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  2. walt moffett says:

    IIRC, one of the justifications for the Libyan Intervention was the regime’s use of air power. So. interesting to see this come up while Russia and China block UN Security Council action.

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m a bit puzzled by the administration’s position on this. What is it? I can imagine several alternatives:

    1. There is a responsibility to protect but we’re not stepping up to it and we don’t want the Russians helping the Syrian regime in putting the resistance down.

    2. There is a responsibility to protect if you can venue shop to find an international institution to support it (which sounds like an argument for resurrecting the Warsaw Pact to me). The Russians shouldn’t be helping the Syrian regime because the UN Security Council hasn’t authorized it.

    3. There is no responsibility to protect but there is a responsibility to avoid making things worse and the Russians are violating that.

    4. There is no policy but the Syrian regime is terrible and Russians shouldn’t be supporting it.

    There are others but those seem the most likely.

    While I agree that the Syrian regime is terrible, I think the Russians have the most coherent policy on ordinary Westphalian grounds: the regime is the internationally-recognized government of Syria and it has both the right and responsibility to maintain order within its borders.

    I’d genuinely like to know what the Obama Administration’s policy is.

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  4. Dave,

    It’s interesting you bring up the Westphalian argument idea. Henry Kissinger had an interesting Op-Ed in the WaPo about two weeks ago arguing that a doctrine of intervening in internal regime politics in the manner something like R2P would seem to compel threatens the world order established by that treaty:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/syrian-intervention-risks-upsetting-global-order/2012/06/01/gJQA9fGr7U_story.html

    Given that so many of the borders in the Middle East are artificial constructs built out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, British and French colonialism, and League of Nations/United Nations protected status, I’m not sure how much that argument really works. But, I’m also not at all sure that going in and tearing apart Syria the way we have Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya (interesting headlines out of there in recent months) is all that good of an idea either.

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  5. Dave Schuler says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    That’s something I’ve been writing about over at my place pretty much as long as I’ve had a blog, going on nine years now. In my view there are big swathes of territory, most notably stretching between the Bosphorus and the Indus, in which while there are areas, generally surrounding large cities, that are Westphalian states, there are also substantial areas that are plainly, realistically not Westphalian states, have never been Westphalian states, and may never be Westphalian states. This situation is not limited to that area—there are parts of Central Asia, South America, and Africa which are very much the same.

    Tom Barnett has referred to these areas in aggregate as “the Gap” and has advocated a change in the international order in which the United States be deputized to do pretty much anything it cares to in these areas to bring these orders closer to the international system. I think his ideas along that line are unrealistic, impractical, and, frankly, somewhat offensive.

    My preference would be that international law should recognize a distinction between governed and ungoverned territory, that states would be held strictly responsible for attacks from their governed territory, the United Nations should hold responsibility for ungoverned territories, and hot pursuit of attackers from ungoverned territories should be considered legitimate Section 7 activity while attacks on troops in such hot pursuit by troops from nearby governed areas would not., Think AfPak.

    Unfortunately, such a change would comprise a threat to the whole United Nations system as it now stands—roughly half of its member “states” are actually city-states or federations of city-states surrounded by large ungoverned territories.

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