WASHINGTON - Tensions between the U.S. and Russia flared Wednesday as the former Cold War foes traded blame for the violence in Syria just days before a planned meeting between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held to her explosive accusation that the "latest information" in U.S. hands is that Russia is sending attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime at the risk of fomenting a dangerous civil war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov fired back by alleging that the U.S. has sent military support to the region with the same result.
The public U.S.-Russian rift is occurring at a time that Obama administration had hoped to court Moscow's support for a transition plan to end the Assad regime. If nothing else, the dispute underlines the American government's continued difficulty in finding a strategy to pacify Syria after 15 months of brutal government crackdowns and armed rebellion.
A day after blasting Moscow for purportedly sending new helicopter gunships to Syria, Clinton lamented on Wednesday that repeated U.S. requests to the Russian government to suspend its military ties with Damascus had fallen on deaf ears.
"We have repeatedly urged the Russian government to cut these military ties completely and to suspend all further support and deliveries," Clinton told reporters. "We know, because they confirm, that they continue to deliver and we believe that the situation is spiraling toward civil war. It is now time for everyone in the international community, including Russia ... to speak to Assad in unified voice and insist that the violence stop."
Clinton questioned Russia's insistence that "it wants peace and stability restored" and that it is not wedded to Assad's remaining in power. "It also claims to have vital interests in the region and relationships that it wants to continue to keep," she said. "They put all of that at risk if they do not move more constructively right now."
In Tehran, Lavrov rejected the helicopter charge and blamed Washington for fueling the conflict. He said his government was completing earlier weapons contracts with Syria exclusively for air defence systems, which generally refers to surface-to-air missiles, radar and other such materiel. He didn't speak specifically about helicopters but insisted that nothing being delivered could be used against peaceful demonstrators.
Lavrov was widely quoted as accusing the U.S. of providing Syrian dissidents with weapons, but he only said the U.S. was supplying "special means" to the region, not the rebels.
"We are not supplying to Syria or anywhere else things that are used in fighting with peaceful demonstrators, in contrast to the United States, which is regularly sending such special means to countries in the region," he said. "For some reason, the Americans consider this to be in order. We are not delivering such means and are delivering only that which Syria requires in the event of an armed attack on it from outside."
Nevertheless, Clinton said Wednesday: "The United States has provided no military support to the opposition. None."
The U.S. has helped other countries vet potential recipients of military aid in the hope that none of the weapons heading into the region end up with al-Qaida or other terrorist groups.
Responding to Lavrov's dismissal of the U.S. helicopter claims, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "I would encourage him to check with his own authorities."
"Russian and Soviet-made helicopters form the base of the Syrian helicopter fleet," Nuland told reporters. "We are seeing these helicopters used all over Syria now against civilians. We are seeing gun mounts on these being used to fire on populations in Homs, in Hama, in Lattakia, in Idlib. We have seen the Russians resupply weapons they have sold to the Syrians as recently as January."
In making the initial charge on Tuesday, Clinton cited what she called the "latest information" the U.S. had about helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria. The remark appeared to catch many in the Obama administration unprepared, but two U.S. officials said that Clinton was repeating information contained in a classified intelligence briefing circulated Tuesday morning.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified material. Another official said the Syrians use both Mi-8/17 HIP and Mi-24/25 HIND helicopters. The HIP is a multi-purpose helicopter used primarily for transport but can be modified to carry hull-mounted weapons for air-to-ground strike missions. The HIND is an attack helicopter specifically designed for air-to-ground strikes using missiles, rockets and heavy machine-guns.
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney softened Clinton's accusation against Russia, calling it one element of a larger argument the U.S. is making that Russia should do more to spur political change in Syria. He would not say whether Obama and Putin would discuss arms sales on the sidelines of the meeting of the Group of 20 industrial and emerging market nations in Mexico next week.
"Our argument has been, to the Russians and others who have supported that regime in the past, that that it is the wrong thing to do to continue that support," Carney said.
Despite their disagreement, diplomatic hopes rest with Washington and Moscow agreeing on a transition plan that might end the four-decade Assad regime. Russia, along with China, has twice blocked the U.N. Security Council from setting world sanctions on Assad's regime, and Moscow has consistently rejected the use of outside forces to end the conflict or any international plan to force regime change in Damascus.
More than 13,000 people have died since March 2011, according to opposition groups, and the view of many in the international community is that the conflict could get worse still. Hoping for a plan that wins international unity and avoids the need for another U.S. military intervention in the Muslim world, the Obama administration has been trying to get Russia to join a widened diplomatic strategy for a structured end to the four-decade Assad dynasty.
One concession to Moscow is that Assad would be allowed to remain in power for the start of the transition. But Russia has up to now steadfastly backed its closest Middle East partner. Moscow and Damascus maintain long-standing military relations and the Arab country hosts Russia's only naval base in the Mediterranean Sea.
Nevertheless, U.N. mediator Kofi Annan is also banking on a Russian-American understanding on Syria, inviting both powers to a conference aimed at mapping out a transition planned for later this month in Geneva.
Carney expressed the administration's frustration.
"The window of opportunity to bring about a transition to a democratic future for Syria is closing and will close," he said. "And if it does, the chance for a broader and sectarian civil war will be enhanced greatly."
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Anne Gearan in Washington, James Heintz in Moscow and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran contributed to this report.