Russia has increased its weapons shipments to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government since last year, military aid that is likely “more significant” than Iranian arms supplies to Damascus, according to senior US diplomats.
“It has increased from a year ago. There are more deliveries, and in some cases, they are militarily extremely significant,” Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, told a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week.
Ford said he had not seen a “detailed estimate of the dollar value” of the Russian arms shipments, which US officials have said are propping up Assad in his government’s raging civil war against Syrian rebel forces.
Giving an example of the deliveries’ impact, however, Ford said Gen. Salim Idris, commander of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, told him that Syrian air force jets refurbished by Russia and delivered to Assad’s forces “make a huge difference.”
“I think the Russians would help everyone get to the negotiating table if they would stop these deliveries,” Ford said.
Russian officials have repeatedly defended the weapons shipments, saying Moscow is fulfilling previously signed contracts and not violating international law with the deliveries.
Ford told Thursday’s hearing that the United States and its allies had succeeded in getting one Syria-bound Russian arms delivery sent back by convincing an insurance company to withdraw its coverage from the ship carrying the cargo.
“But that’s a rare success,” Ford said. “ … It would be great if we could make better progress with the Russians.”
Thomas Countryman, assistant US secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, told the hearing that Russian arms deliveries have become “probably more significant than what Iran provides in terms of military assistance.”
He said Russia is losing credibility in the Arab world and around the Middle East by giving its “unswerving support to the Syrian regime.”
The United States and several other countries accuse Assad’s government of being behind an August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that Washington claims left more than 1,400 dead.
The Syrian government in turn has accused rebel groups it has been battling since March 2011 of being behind the attack, though it agreed to a Russia-brokered deal to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal.
The deal was struck amid threats by Washington that it would carry out military strikes against Syrian government targets in response to the Aug. 21 attack.