On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused the Russians of sending attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria," Clinton said. "They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn't worry; everything they're shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That's patently untrue."
Her pugnacious remarks made for a striking contrast. Just last week, according to the New York Times, she was dispatching an emissary to Moscow to sound out the Russians on how to achieve "a common vision on a post-Assad political transition in Syria." The article noted that the Russian government had recently "suggested it is not opposed to new leadership in Syria, its most important ally in the Middle East."
Judging by Clinton's outburst, the envoy's trip doesn't seem to have gone well. Maybe it had something to do with the remarks made over the weekend by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He confirmed that a Russian freighter had docked at the Syrian port of Tartus late last month. And yes, he said, there were weapons onboard the ship -- but nothing that Assad could deploy against his own people. The equipment delivered was strictly for the defense of Syrian air space, and "could be used only if Syria is subjected to military intervention from abroad." (He has since repeated the point in response to Clinton's allegations.)
None of this, obviously, bodes well for the prospect of Russian-American cooperation on Syria. But that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Judging by the evidence, Moscow's position has remained remarkably consistent throughout the Syrian uprising -- and there's little sign that it will change any time soon.
The reasons for this are fairly clear. First and foremost, Assad's regime is pretty much the Kremlin's last solid ally in the Arab world. The friendship between Moscow and Damascus goes back decades. (The photo above shows an Assad supporter greeting Lavrov during a visit to Damascus in Februrary.) The present Syrian president's father, Hafez el-Assad, was one of the Soviet Union's most reliable regional friends. And Tartus, which provides access and supplies for Russian ships in the Mediterranean, counts as Moscow's only military base outside the old USSR. Losing it would strike a blow to Russia's desire to be taken seriously as a world power. "Without Syria as an ally, they really have no presence in the Middle East," says Mark Katz, a Russia watcher at George Mason University.