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. 

Maxim Marmur/AP/File
In this file photo, Russian Mi-24 helicopter gunships kick up dust near the Chechen capital Grozny. Syria has received dozens of Soviet-built Mi-8 transport helicopters and Mi-24 helicopter gunships since the Cold War times, with the last deliveries taking place in the 1990s, and some of them require major repairs that can only be done by Russian repair plants.

With her assertion this week that Russia is sending attack helicopters to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to use against his own people, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may have been out to increase pressure on Russia to drop its resistance to international action in the Syrian conflict.

But an unintended consequence has been to feed certain flames that Secretary Clinton herself and other officials have been trying to beat back – namely, that it is long past time for the United States to intervene to stop the Syrian bloodshed.

That view has been expressed by prominent hawks and even some liberal interventionists for months. But it got a boost Thursday when former US ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson said the US would have no choice but to start arming Syria’s rebels if indeed Russia is sending attack helicopters to President Assad’s forces.

“This is a humanitarian crisis going on in Syria,” Mr. Richardson, who is known for his diplomatic forays into North Korea, told Fox News Latino’s Juan Williams. “If the Russians get in there, and there’s evidence of that, I think that would be the defining step to move forward with arming the rebels.”

So is the furor over Russian helicopters likely to be the tipping point that shifts the Obama administration into a more interventionist mode? (Think last summer’s Libya campaign here.)

Certainly, the administration has not backed off Clinton’s charges. In response to Russian claims that no new helicopters are being sent to Syria, and that whatever arms are being sent are for national air-defense purposes only, State Department officials acknowledge that Clinton may have been talking about older, refurbished helicopters – but still attack helicopters – being sent back to Syria.

But neither Clinton nor anyone else in the administration has gone the next step to say Russia’s provisioning of Assad with heavy weapons would trigger a more robust US response, such as arming the rebels’ Syrian Free Army.

The arguments against arming the rebels have not changed:

  • 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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