Russian effort to send helicopters to Syria hits snag

A British insurer revoked coverage from a Russian ship that was delivering helicopters to Syria. Without insurance, ships cannot enter port.

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The Russian helicopters bound for Syria – and at the center of a US-Russia diplomatic dispute – might not make it to Syria after all.

Standard Club, a British ship insurer, terminated insurance coverage of the Russian ship purported to be carrying arms after the company heard allegations about the cargo and destination, according to Russian news outlet RIA Novosti. The Russian ship is believed to be carrying refitted combat helicopters and antiship missiles to Tartous, Syria, where Russia has a naval base. Without insurance, however, ships cannot enter port.

The company told RIA Novosti that the British government did not influence its decision, but The Telegraph reports that British security officials told the Standard Club that providing insurance for the ship was likely a breach of European Union sanctions on Syria.

Russia has denied that the equipment could be used against Syrian civilians, insisting the materiel is for defensive purposes only. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also said that the helicopters were supplied during the Soviet-era and were merely being returned to Syria under an already existing contract, according to RIA Novosti.

Russia has been the subject of intense international criticism for its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and for blocking any international efforts to take stronger action.

Some Syria observers see the shipment as undermining Russia's insistence that it opposes intervention in the conflict. The Telegraph's Middle East correspondent, Richard Spencer, writes:

"Russian arguments against direct involvement could now be strongly questioned by the British and Americans: 'Who is intervening in the crisis here? Who is pouring fuel on the flames? If you are providing attack helicopters to the Syrians how can you possibly say you are not intervening in the crisis?'"

Mr. Spencer speculated that this is likely to be followed with a stepping up of Western support for the rebels, perhaps through arms supplies.

Russia was also preparing to send military personnel and ships to its Tartous base, purportedly to secure it and to evacuate Russian nationals in case the conflict made it necessary, according to some reports. The US is reluctant to criticize the move because it often takes similar steps during international crises to protect its own defenses, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit yesterday. With this most recent spat, Syria was likely a top discussion topic, but the joint statement from the leaders contained only one paragraph addressing Syria:

We agree to cooperate bilaterally and multilaterally to solve regional conflicts.  In order to stop the bloodshed in Syria, we call for an immediate cessation of all violence and express full support for the efforts of [United Nations]/League of Arab States Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan, including moving forward on political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system that would be implemented by the Syrians themselves in the framework of Syria's sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity.  We are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future.

But their support for Mr. Annan's plan is no change from current positions, and the peace plan has had little effect on the violence there. The international community has largely deemed it a failure, and the UN observer mission to Syria was suspended last week out of concern for the safety. 

Russia's intransigence has been convenient for the US, which has heaped blame for international inaction on Russia even while it has shown no appetite for intervening itself, according to the Associated Press.

… in many ways, Russia’s stance is convenient for Washington and its allies which have their own reasons for avoiding direct intervention in yet another Arab nation in crisis.

Not the least of them is the impending U.S. presidential election in November. Others are the uncertain outcome of a military commitment and the war-weariness of the U.S. public.

“The fact that Russia is not budging on Syria certainly helps Washington in its efforts to justify its inaction,” said Bilal Saab, a fellow and Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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