Syria is “spiraling toward civil war,” with Russia supporting the violence by continuing to arm President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
“We have repeatedly urged the Russian government to cut these military ties completely and to suspend all further support and deliveries,” Clinton said yesterday at the State Department. “We know -- because they confirm -- that they continue to deliver.”
The remarks were the latest in an exchange of critical comments by U.S. and Russian officials, putting on display their deepening rift over how to deal with the conflict in Syria, a nation that has been Russia’s main Mideast ally.
Earlier in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected U.S. accusations that it’s sending arms for use against Syrian civilians and said his country is simply fulfilling its contractual obligations.
“We are completing previously signed and paid-for contracts,” Lavrov said during a press conference in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi. “All these contracts have to do exclusively with air-defense systems.”
Lavrov said Russia doesn’t want to see Syria “fall into pieces.” Russia was only supplying “what Syria might need in case of a military attack from outside,” he said.
Clinton said June 12 that she was “concerned by the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically.” Russia is repairing about 20 Mi-24 helicopters sold to Syria during the Soviet era, two people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg yesterday.
When the U.S. has raised its concerns with the Russians in the past, Clinton said, they have said “we shouldn’t worry; everything they’re shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That’s patently untrue.”
The U.S. and United Nations say the Syrian government is using helicopter gunships as it increases the tempo of military operations against the opposition. After 15 months of conflict, the UN says the two-month-old cease-fire negotiated with Assad by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan is failing to hold and that massacres are being committed against Sunni civilians.
Clinton called on Russia to support efforts to end Assad’s rule. “We believe that the situation is spiraling toward civil war, and it’s now time for everyone in the international community, including Russia and all Security Council members, to speak to Assad with a unified voice and insist that the violence stop, and come together with Kofi Annan to plan a political transition going forward.”
No-fly zones over Syria are one of the possibilities being considered by France and its allies if Assad’s regime doesn’t cease its crackdown, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. “It is one of the options,” he said at a press conference yesterday in Paris.
He said that 140 countries and organizations have been invited to a July 6 meeting in Paris of the so-called Friends of Syria contact group backing the Syrian opposition.
In Syria, government forces shelled the al-Khaldiyeh neighborhood in Homs yesterday as heavy clashes continued in the city, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. A video posted on YouTube yesterday showed what purported to be images from Homs, including smoke rising from the city and loud explosions. The authenticity of the videos couldn’t be verified.
At least 72 people were killed in the conflict yesterday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group.
Assad’s attacks on what began as a peaceful opposition movement pushed Syria toward sectarian violence pitting the majority Sunnis against the Alawite leadership in a patchwork nation of ethnic and religious groups. That’s left at least 10,000 dead, the UN estimates.
A translation into Farsi of Lavrov’s comments to reporters in Tehran had him accusing the U.S. of helping to provide weapons to Syrian rebels. The Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow later provided an audio recording that showed Lavrov didn’t accuse the U.S. of arming the Syrian opposition.
“The United States has provided no military support to the Syrian opposition, none,” Clinton said yesterday. “All of our support has been medical and humanitarian, to help relieve the suffering of the Syrian people, a total of $52 million so far.”