US says Russian arms kill Syrians 'hourly' as West turns up pressure

US ratchets up its charges even as Russia says it's supplying only defensive weapons. Britain and France join a chorus that appears to be pressing Moscow to give up on Syria's Assad.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius attends a news conference about Syria in Paris, on June 13. France will propose making the United Nations envoy's peace plan for Syria obligatory by invoking the U.N.'s 'Chapter 7' provision, describing the conflict there as a 'civil war.'

Far from backing off claims that Russia is providing Bashar al-Assad the heavy weapons that are killing Syrian civilians, the United States ratcheted up the charges Wednesday – asserting that Russian-supplied weapons are killing Syrians “on an hourly basis.”

Firing back, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country is only supplying Syria with defensive weapons – before he went on to snipe that it is in fact the US that is supplying the region with its deadliest weapons.

The latest US-Russia row over Syria, touched off by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s warning Tuesday that a shipment of Russian attack helicopters is on its way to President Assad’s armed forces, comes as the Syrian conflict deteriorates to a point where a growing number of diplomats and regional experts are deeming it a full-blown civil war.

With Syria going from bad to worse before a divided and ineffectual international community, the public dispute between the two world powers may be part of an effort to place blame – especially, in the case of the US, with the Obama administration coming under increasingly harsh criticism for “dithering.”

But the administration’s campaign to shine a condemnatory spotlight on Russia may also be part of a broader international effort to convince Russia that it is time for it to give up on Assad and throw its weight behind a political transition in Syria.

Even as Minister Lavrov and Secretary Clinton were trading charges, European powers led by France announced plans to seek a United Nations Security Council resolution that would bind Assad to accepting an existing peace plan for Syria (one that envisions his transition out of power) and would authorize sanctions and even use of international military force if he did not.

Russia, joined by China, has vetoed two considerably weaker Security Council resolutions over the course of Syria’s 15-month crisis. But European leaders on Thursday appeared set on convincing Russia that Assad has reached a point of no return.

France’s new foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, called Assad’s “a regime of death and blood,” and said Syria was now in a “civil war.” British Foreign Minister William Hague, meeting with Lavrov, said Syria is “on the edge of total collapse” and that he would press upon Lavrov to help convince Assad that his only choice is to accept the peace plan of UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan and step down from power.

The message for Russia, Mr. Hague said, is that Assad “is not going to get back on top of the situation” no matter how terrible the Syrian conflict becomes.

With its Western allies implementing a full-court press on Russia, Washington was hardly in a mood to back off its charges.

At the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland laid the spilling of Syrian blood at Moscow’s feet. “On a daily basis, on an hourly basis, we are seeing Russian- and Soviet-made weaponry used against civilians in towns all across Syria,” she said.

And Clinton said Thursday that US demands on Russia to stop arming Assad are not new. “We have repeatedly urged the Russian government to cut these military ties completely and to suspend all further support and deliveries,” she said.

As for Lavrov’s assertions that Russia is only fulfilling contracts signed well in the past and which are “solely for air defense,” Ms. Nuland suggested the Russian foreign minister might not have correct information on the issue.

“I would encourage him to check with his own authorities,” she said.

For his part, Lavrov tried to deflect the accusations of arming ruthless authorities by turning it back on the US. “We don’t supply Syria or anyone else with things that are used to fight against peaceful demonstrators, unlike the United States, which regularly supplies that region with such special equipment,” he said. The US, he continued, is providing arms to the Syrian opposition “that can be used against the Damascus government.”

The US has only authorized providing the Syrian opposition with non-lethal supplies such as communications equipment, but it is also true that countries in the region, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, are providing weapons to the Syrian Free Army – and with tacit US approval.

Lavrov’s accusation that the US “regularly supplies that region with such special equipment” is in line with criticism over the past year from a number of human rights organizations that the monarchy in Bahrain, which purchases arms from the US, repressed demonstrations – resulting in scores of deaths – with the assistance of the US-supplied Saudi military.

But at the State Department, Nuland rejected the comparison. She said the US maintains “oversight” to ensure that US-supplied weapons are not used against civilians. And if Russia has such a system, she added, “it doesn’t seem to be applied in this case.”

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