Russia has increased its weapons shipments to the Syrian government in the past year, complicating efforts to start peace talks, the U.S. ambassador to Syria said today.
Ambassador Robert Ford today called the Russian military aid “substantial” and in some cases “militarily extremely significant.” A second U.S. official, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman, said the Russian aid is now more important than the weapons provided to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces by Iran.
While he didn’t provide details, Ford made clear that Russia’s action are a cause for tension between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The diplomats speak several times a week in efforts to prepare for peace talks in Geneva as soon as next month, Ford told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“We have had, including at the level of the secretary, a lot of discussion with the Russians” about the arms shipments, Ford said. “The Russians would help everyone get to the negotiating table faster if they would stop these deliveries.”
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said the U.S. is in an “Orwellian situation” in which Russia cooperates on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons while increasing the quantity and quality of the conventional weapons in the hands of Assad’s forces.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee’s senior Republican, said the U.S. appears “feckless” with its slow and limited military supplies to the Syrian rebels. He said the U.S. has covertly trained about 1,000 Syrian rebels, and is continuing at a rate of 50 to 100 a month.
Ford said a diplomatic solution is essential because neither side in the conflict “can throw a knockout punch in the foreseeable future.”
The rebels are weakened by infighting between moderate and radical Islamist factions, he said.
Countryman, assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation, told the committee that Russia’s “unswerving support” for the Syrian government “costs the Russians in credibility with the rest of the Arab world and with the entire region.”
Ford confirmed an incident last summer in which a cargo ship carrying Russian arms was turned back after the U.S. and allies “convinced an insurance company to withdraw its insurance coverage for the ship delivering it.”
“But that is a rare success, frankly,” Ford said.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said today that Syria has met a deadline for the destruction of chemical weapons production facilities, the biggest step so far in the United Nations-authorized program to surrender its weapons of mass destruction.
The Russian-brokered deal, which averted U.S. military strikes, disappointed Syrian rebels who have sought support from military intervention, Ford said. Syrian opposition leaders have said they worry that the accord will be seen as strengthening Assad’s claim to continuing in power.
“While al-Assad may see himself as indispensable to the elimination of chemical weapons, that is not our view,” Countryman said. “The Syrian Arab Republic has accepted an obligation that is binding upon this government and binding upon the next government, which we hope to see soon.”
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