Tensions between Washington and Moscow over Syria escalated yesterday after it emerged that Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, may have indulged in a “little spin” when she charged earlier this week that Russia was delivering attack helicopters to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Both Russia and Syria flatly denied the allegation while US officials quietly conceded that the implication that the helicopters were new may have been inaccurate and that they may instead have been old ones first delivered years ago that were simply being sent back to the Syrians after routine servicing in Russia.
The new row comes as President Barack Obama prepares to travel to a G20 summit in Mexico on Monday where he will have his first meeting with Vladimir Putin since he was sworn in as President of Russia earlier this year. It is likely to complicate efforts by the US and other western powers to persuade the Russians to join them in putting new pressure on Assad into accepting the start of political transition that would see him eased from power.
Even without the chopper squabble, there was never much hope of a breakthrough at the summit in Los Cabos with Russia and China, both of whom have veto powers on the UN Security Council, standing by their positions that sovereign countries have the right to crush internal uprisings if they see fit and that foreign powers should not interfere. Without progress the already tottering peace effort of the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is likely to unravel entirely.
Violence on the ground, meanwhile, escalated yesterday as a car bomb exploded in a Damascus suburb wounding fourteen people and damaging a nearby Shia shrine. Separately, a group of UN monitors entered the shattered Mediterranean town of al-Haffa last night after it was retaken from rebel groups by government forces.
The diplomatic stand-off is starting to have echoes of the Cold War, when Moscow and Washington were repeatedly on opposing sides in conflicts around the globe. Whether or not the helicopters are new, any evidence of the Syrian government using them to hit rebel forces from the air with machine guns or missiles could draw Washington further into the conflict particularly if it brought new calls for a no-fly zone.
On Tuesday Mrs Clinton, who in recent weeks has been stepping up her criticism of Moscow, said the US was “concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically”. With no evidence available of any contracts for new helicopters for Damascus, US officials were forced within twenty four hours to qualify the remark, however. “She put a little spin on it to put the Russians in a difficult position,” a senior Pentagon official told the New York Times.
Through its ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, Syria offered a first denial of her claim yesterday. “Russia is not delivering any helicopters to Syria,” he asserted. Threatening to stoke the tensions further, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, meanwhile accused the US of hypocrisy. Russia insists that any military contracts it has with Syria are for the supply of defensive weapons only to protect the country from foreign attack.
“We are not providing Syria or any other place with things which can be used in struggle with peaceful demonstrators, unlike the United States, which regularly supplies such equipment to this region,” Mr. Lavrov said, singling out what he had said were recent US deliveries to “one of the Persian Gulf states”, interpreted as a reference to Bahrain. “But for some reason the Americans consider this completely normal.”