Cold War superpowers are lining up over Syria arms sales
18 June 2012
Anthony Tucker-Jones argues that Washington's recent war of words with Moscow over arms supplies to Syria is a return to the bad old days of the Cold War
When Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, calls the Russians liars, it is clear that Washington has decided to ditch diplomatic niceties.
Last week, deliberately upping the ante in the war of words over the bloodshed in Syria, Clinton said the US was "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." The word 'information', in reality, should read 'intelligence'.
Such a public naming and shaming is reminiscent of the bad old days of the Cold War, but Clinton lambasting the Russians over helicopter deliveries is actually part of the opening moves towards implementing a no-fly zone over northern Syria.
"The regime is now using helicopters more after its ground troops suffered major losses," Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said by way of endorsement. This claim was backed by the head of UN peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous, who said: "Now we have confirmed reports of not only of the use of tanks and artillery but also attack helicopters, this is really becoming large scale."
Most recently, witnesses observed Mi-8 helicopter gunships, operating out of the Minakh military airport, launching rocket attacks on a hospital in rebel-held Tall Rifat in northern Syria.
While to date there has been little evidence of the Syrian government using fixed wing aircraft to suppress the rebels, the deployment of helicopters for re-supply and to support beleaguered ground troops shows how thinly spread the Syrian Army has become. Damascus may now have also started using its air power in part to keep the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) away from its armour as rebels use increasingly sophisticated anti-tank missiles courtesy of their foreign backers.
Satellite imagery released by the US government at the beginning of the month showed what appeared to be two Russian-built Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships at an airfield in Shayrat. The Syrian air force operates the Mi-25, the export version of the Mi-24. It is believed to have obtained about 50 in the 1980s, but it is unlikely that even half of these are airworthy. Syria also has about 80 Mi-8 and Mi-17 transport helicopters that can be used for ground attack.
Shayrat is the location of a sprawling Syrian Air Force base which also houses some of the regime's MiG-29 and MiG-23 fighter aircraft as well as being a dumping ground for its older MiG-21s. Notably, the MiG-23 fighter-bomber was used in a ground attack role in Libya.
While Russia vehemently denied delivering new helicopters, there is the suggestion that the shipments could contain old Syrian ones being returned after an upgrade. During this high-level diplomatic spat a senior Pentagon official has gone on record as saying Clinton "put a little spin onto it to put the Russians in a difficult position". Nonetheless, even if these are refurbished helicopters they are currently ones the Syrian military cannot deploy until they are returned – so US criticism remains valid.
Throughout all of this it is believed that Moscow is making weapons shipments to Syria at least once a month. The last delivery was made to the Syrian port of Tartus on 26 May, but no one knows what the manifest contained. Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, claims his country is continuing to deliver air defence systems but few are convinced – US Secretary of State Clinton described his claims as "patently untrue".
When you consider the tempo of Syrian military options over the past year and a half it is clear that this is a lie. Syria would never have been able to maintain a war against Israel for 18 months without help from Moscow – which is what happened in 1967 and 1973. During the 1980s Damascus received large numbers of fighters, ground attack aircraft, missiles, tanks and warships from Moscow. In the 1990s there were yet more tanks, fighters and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
Over the last five years weapon deliveries have indeed been predominately aircraft, air defence systems, missiles and sensors from Belarus, Iran and Russia. Unclassified data shows that between 2007 and 2012 Moscow supplied Damascus with SA-17, SA-18 and SA-19 SAMs, around 24 MiG-23 fighter-ground attack aircraft as well as air-to-air and anti-shipping missiles. In January the Russians delivered 30-60 tons of ammunition that will have greatly helped the Syrian security forces bombarding Free Syrian Army held areas.
However, the most useful pieces of kit in the war against the rising will be the 36 Yak-130 trainer aircraft, which can be used as light strike aircraft. These were ordered last December in a contract worth half a billion US dollars.
Lavrov counters American claims saying supplying air defence systems "contrasts with what the US is doing, which is providing arms to the Syrian opposition which are being used against the Syrian government". Washington denies this. Nonetheless, with the cooperation of Turkey's National Intelligence Organisation Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been shipping weapons to the rebels. Both countries are keen to counter the influence of Iran in Syria and Lebanon.
To put Moscow further on the spot the French government has announced that it plans to table a UN Security Council Resolution making the moribund Kofi Annan cease-fire plan mandatory. With Annan's proposals currently in tatters, it is likely his 'peace' monitors will be withdrawn; enforcement will then be reliant on a no-fly zone. This would put an end to Syrian helicopters re-supplying isolated army bases in northern Syria and attacking ground targets. Once in place it will be the undoing of President Assad's regime.