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Clinton accuses Russia of sending attack helicopters to Syria, escalating war

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Russia Tuesday that it risks sending the Syrian conflict into a higher level of violence and volatility by continuing to arm the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad with heavy weapons.

Specifically, the chief US diplomat said she had information indicating that Russia is about to deliver a fresh shipment of attack helicopters to Assad — something she suggested could have significant ramifications not just for Syria but for a region already on edge over the conflict.

“We are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria,” Secretary Clinton told an audience at Washington’s Brookings Institution. Adding more of such weapons to the fight “will escalate the conflict quite dramatically,” she said.

Clinton’s comments came a day after the State Department accused the Assad regime of using helicopter gunships in attacking civilian populations in opposition strongholds. It is likely that any attack helicopters Syria is using are from Russia, which is Syria’s principal arms supplier.

The US and Russia have been at odds on Syria since the conflict pitting the Assad regime against an armed opposition broke out in March 2011.  Since then Russia has twice vetoed Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime, earning it the disdain of Clinton and other US officials who characterized Russia’s protection of Assad as “despicable,” among other adjectives.

Russia, which fears losing its last Middle East ally were Assad to fall, has stood in the way of US and Western efforts to impose an arms embargo on Syria.

Russia has recently stepped up hints that it is not wedded to seeing Assad hold on to power, and Russian officials have insisted that the arms Assad is receiving from them are not of a nature to be used in the civilian conflict.

Clinton noted as much in her comments Tuesday, saying, “We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria. They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn’t worry — everything they are shipping is unrelated to [Assad’s] actions internally,” she added. “That’s patently untrue.”

For their part, Russian officials including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have pointed to the arming of Syrian rebel forces by outside parties, primarily pro-opposition Arab countries, and protested that the Syrian government can hardly be expected to stand by idly.

Clinton’s stark commentary on Russian actions in Syria runs counter to efforts by the UN’s special envoy on Syria, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to overcome the tensions among world powers over Syria by forming a “contact group” on the conflict. The point of such a move would be to try to get the US and Russia on the same page, but the proposal seems dead on arrival.

As Clinton was blasting Russia’s Syria moves in Washington, the UN official in charge of the cease-fire monitors in Syria said in an interview that in his view the Syria conflict has now become an out-and-out civil war. Herve Ladsous, the undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, answered “Yes” when asked in an interview with the Reuters news agency if Syria was now in civil war.

The Syrian opposition has taken “large chunks of territory and several cities,” Mr. Ladsous said, and in response the Assad regime is using artillery, tanks, and attack helicopters to try to take the territory back, he added.

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