WASHINGTON - When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Russia on Tuesday of shipping attack helicopters to Syria that would “escalate the conflict quite dramatically,’’ it was the Obama administration’s sharpest criticism yet of Russia’s support for the Syrian government.
What Clinton did not say, however, was whether the aircraft were new shipments or, as US officials say is more likely, helicopters that Syria had sent to Russia a few months ago for routine repairs and refurbishing, and which were now about to be returned. “She put a little spin on it to put the Russians in a difficult position,’’ said one senior Defense Department official.
Clinton’s criticism about the helicopters, administration officials said, is part of a calculated effort to raise the pressure on Russia to abandon President Bashar Assad, its main ally in the Middle East.
In response to Clinton’s allegations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov accused the United States of hypocrisy Wednesday, saying it had supplied weapons that could be used against demonstrators in other countries in the region. Lavrov, during a visit to Iran, repeated Russia’s insistence that it is not supplying Damascus with weapons to be used in a civil war.
US officials have warned the Russians that Assad’s exit is inevitable and that if Russia wants to preserve its influence in Syria, it needs to be part of the effort to arrange a political transition. If Russia is viewed as complicit in the Assad government’s attack on its own people, these officials said, it would be shunned by any new Syrian government.
Administration officials declined to give details about the helicopters, saying the information was classified. But White House and intelligence officials have backed up the substance of Clinton’s comments. Some officials said that, new or refurbished, the helicopters were equally deadly when turned against the civilian population.
A single Russian state-owned arms monopoly, Rosoboronexport, handles all or nearly all formal weapons exports, including helicopters produced by a variety of enterprises in Russia.
A company spokesman, Vyachislav Davidenko, said Rosoboronexport is sending “no extraordinary supplies, not speeding up contracts, and sending no additional shipments.’’
Meanwhile, Syria said Wednesday that the village of Al Heffa in its Mediterranean hinterland, which UN monitors had been physically blocked from visiting to check on fears of a massacre there, had been “cleansed’’ of armed terrorist gangs, the government’s blanket term for the opposition.
Activists in the opposition said a blizzard of artillery shelling by the Syrian military had forced all residents of Al Heffa to flee. The Syrian Foreign Ministry issued a statement declaring that the UN monitors, who are unarmed, were now invited to visit Al Heffa to inspect the situation after “security and calm’’ had been restored. It said that the armed groups had carried out “killing and terrorizing against the innocent citizens, and acts of looting and vandalism against public and private properties and shops.’’
The ministry declaration represented a U-turn from a day before, when the UN monitors retreated after a mob had attacked their vehicles with stones and iron rods before they reached Al Heffa. Residents of the surrounding villages are mostly Alawites, the same minority sect as Assad, while Sunni Muslims were the majority in Al Heffa.