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If Russia is sending attack helicopters to Syria, should US arm rebels?

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Russia of sending attack helicopters to Syria, she might have ratcheted up the pressure not only on Russia, but on the US, too. 

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The arguments against arming the rebels have not changed:

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  • The opposition is poorly organized and no one knows for sure who its members are.
  • Weapons destined for the rebels could fall into the hands of Al Qaeda and other extremist groups who include the US among their targets.
  • Arming the rebels, in the face of a Russia-supported government, could lead to a proxy war with dangerous geopolitical repercussions.

But a string of massacres in pro-opposition villages in recent weeks, mounting evidence of Assad employing heavy weapons against a rebellious populace, and now the issue of Russian attack helicopters are all increasing pressure on the US to do more than issue statements and rebukes.

Already a group of “hawks” in the US Senate, led by John McCain (R) of Arizona and Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, has called Obama’s lack of leadership on Syria “embarrassing” and the international community’s willingness to allow Russia and China to impede its action in Syria “shameful.”

Last month, Senator McCain said it was “time to act,” adding: “It’s time to give the Syrian opposition the weapons in order to defend themselves. It’s not a fair fight.”

Others closer to the administration have also offered a steady drumbeat in favor of a more muscular intervention. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton’s former policy planning director, who is now at Princeton University, has for months favored the international community establishing “no-kill zones” for Syrian civilians that would be enforced by aircraft – provided international forces disabled Syrian air defenses.

Dr. Slaughter proposes getting around Russia's and China's UN Security Council vetoes of international action by having regional powers (perhaps Turkey) and organizations (principally the Arab League) act with the support of the Security Council majority, which favors stronger international action in Syria.

The Obama administration does not seem to be ready to support that degree of intervention – yet. The irony of Clinton’s diatribe on Russian helicopters is that it may, in a roundabout way, be the factor that finally tips the US in that direction.

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