Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended his country's ongoing arms sales to Syria today, but refused to specifically address allegations by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Moscow is providing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad with attack helicopters that might be used against rebels.
"We are not violating any international law in performing these contracts," Mr. Lavrov said during a press conference in Tehran, where he is consulting in advance of upcoming Moscow talks on Iran's nuclear program. "They [the United States] are providing arms and weapons to the Syrian opposition that can be used in fighting against the Damascus government," he said, repeating Russian allegations that outside powers have been providing sophisticated weapons, including antitank missiles, to Syrian rebels.
Russia insists that what it provides to Syria is merely for self-defense and is not being used in the current conflict. But yesterday Ms. Clinton accused Russia of exacerbating Syria's slide into full-blown civil war by delivering attack helicopters, although she did not provide further details.
"We are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically," she said. "We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued armed shipments to Syria. They have from time to time said that we shouldn't worry, everything they're shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That's patently untrue," Clinton added.
Russian military experts say they are baffled by the claim, since – as far as is publicly known – Russia stopped selling helicopters to Syria more than a decade ago, and hasn't even serviced any since 2006.
On the other hand, Syria currently possesses at least 36 Mi-25 "Hind-D" helicopter gunships, a formidable flying artillery platform made famous by Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s. They are widely alleged to have already been employed against the rebels by Syrian forces in the current conflict.
"As far as we can find out, there haven't been any sales of helicopters to Syria for at least a decade," says Sergei Babichev, editor of the Agency for Military News (AVN), a branch of the independent Russian Interfax news agency. "If anything has happened at all (regarding Syrian helicopters) it might have been some upgrades, or something like that, performed on old Soviet-made machines in Russia. We have asked Rosoboronexport (the state arms export corporation) about this, and they simply assure us that Russia acts in accordance with all international agreements and regulations. We interpret this to mean there's no new equipment of this kind being sold to Syria."
Russia has frequently reiterated its position that some $5 billion in outstanding arms contracts with Syria do not violate UN sanctions and are comprised only of weaponry that contribute to Syria's national self-defense. Russia points to past arms deliveries to Syria such as Bastion coastal defense missile systems, Yakhont cruise missiles, and Buk surface-to-air missile systems as examples.
Asked about a current deal to supply Pantsyr S1 mobile gun and missile systems to Syria, the head of Rosoboronexport, Igor Sevastyanov, said yesterday: "The contract was signed long ago and we supply armaments that are self-defense rather than attack weapons, and there can be no talk about any violations by Russia or Rosoboronexport either de jure or de facto."
In a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that "as for arms supplies, Russia is not supplying arms that could be used in civil conflicts."
Russia regularly replies to charges that it is fueling Syria's civil war by alleging that the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are doing so by providing arms to the rebels. Russia insists it is pursuing a conservative foreign policy that respects national sovereignty and opposes foreign intervention in strife-torn states like Syria.
"We have no data on recent Russian sales of military helicopters to Syria," says Igor Korotchenko, director of the independent Center for the Analysis of World Arms Trade (CAWAT) in Moscow.
"I suspect these accusation are best explained by the active information campaign [in the West] aimed at discrediting Russian policy and undermining its efforts to settle the Syrian conflict peacefully. There's a lot of disinformation going around, and this looks like more of the same."