Last updated: 13 June, 2012

Russia accuses US of arming Syrian rebels

Russia and the United States were in dispute over arming the rival sides in the Syrian conflict on Wednesday, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks in Tehran with Syria’s ally Iran.

Due to what Moscow said was a mistake in translation, Lavrov appeared at first to accuse the United States of supplying weapons to Syria’s rebels who are battling the Damascus regime supported by Moscow.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had information that Russia was sending to Syria “attack helicopters … which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically.”

Lavrov told a news conference during a brief visit to Iran that Russia was supplying “anti-air defence systems” to Damascus in a deal that “in no way violates international laws.”

“That contrasts with what the United States is doing with the opposition, which is providing arms to the Syrian opposition which are being used against the Syrian government,” he said, in remarks translated from Russian into Farsi by an official interpreter.

Other media, including Iran’s official IRNA news agency, published the same accusation, in what appeared to be the first time Moscow had directly pointed the finger at Washington.

But in Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry later said Lavrov’s statement was mistranslated and that the minister had only said Washington was supplying arms “in the region.”

The White House, meanwhile, denied arming Syria’s opposition.

“We do not and have not supplied weapons to the Syrian opposition. You know our position on that and we have made it very clear,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Russian news agencies offered a different version of Lavrov’s comments.

“We do not supply — neither to Syria nor anywhere else — things used to fight peaceful civilians, unlike the United States, which regularly supplies such special equipment to this region,” Lavrov was quoted as saying.

“Just recently, one such shipment was made to one of the Persian Gulf nations. But for some reason, the Americans treat this as par for the course,” Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said at the same news conference with Lavrov that Tehran and Moscow were “very close” on the Syrian issue.

Western and Arab nations, he said, “are sending weapons to Syria and forces to Syria, and are not allowing the reforms promised by the Syrian president to be applied.”

Reports in Iran allege that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States are arming Syria’s rebels — termed “terrorists” by Damascus — while US officials claim Iran is giving arms and military advisors to Syria’s regime.

Monitors say more than 14,100 people have been killed in the 15-month uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia came under fierce criticism from Western and Arab countries for vetoing two UN Security Council resolutions that would have sanctioned Assad for his use of force.

Since then, it has sought to distance itself from Assad while continuing to support his regime. “We do not support any individual or government, we support the people of Syria,” Lavrov said.

Moscow is now trying to organise an international conference on Syria that would include several nations with influence over the conflict, including Iran. The United States, Britain and France, though, object to Iran taking part.

“We want the support of all the players,” Lavrov said.

“All sides in the conflict need to stop operations … Any player with leverage should apply pressure to stop the violence and facilitate negotiations,” he said.