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The Battle for Syria

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Russian Ship Suspected of Carrying Arms to Syria Turns Back

June 19th 2012

Russian cargo ship

A cargo ship believed to be carrying Russian-made attack helicopters has been halted on its way to Syria after its insurance coverage was withdrawn.  Some analysts say the nature of the cargo was what kept the vessel from reaching its destination. The cargo ship, the MV Alaed, is said to have had its policy cancelled by insurers in London.

Britain says the vessel is now heading home. "I am pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has turned back apparently towards Russia," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons. A statement by the British-based ship insurance company Standard Club said it was told about the nature of the vessel's cargo and it consequently informed the ship's owners that their "insurance coverage ceased due to the nature of the journey." The Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported that the ship is thought to be carrying refurbished Russian Mi-25 attack helicopters as well as coast-based anti-ship missiles. 

British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently raised the issue of Russian arms shipments to Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In a public statement last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was concerned about a shipment of Russian helicopters, saying they had the potential to escalate the conflict in Syria. Russia rejected the accusations that it was supplying armed helicopters to Syria.

Analyst Riad Kahwaji of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis says that the apparent deal involves Syrian Mi-24 attack helicopters that had been sent to Russia some time ago to be refurbished and upgraded. He also says the deal is more economic than political. "This is part of an old deal. My belief is that the Russians see the situation in Syria deteriorating quickly....and could be on the verge of collapse....so they are pre-empting this by sending all they have, or due to be delivered to the Syrians now, not just to help in crushing the rebellion but to get their money, once they deliver these weapons," he said.

Kahwaji says Russia lost billions of dollars last year in an arms deal it had signed with the regime of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, which collapsed before the transaction was completed.  Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said at a recent press conference that the deal with Damascus involved refurbished Soviet-era helicopters that are being returned to Syria under existing contracts. He said none of the weapons Russia is providing can be used against civilians.

Middle East analyst James Denselow of King's College London argues that the recently reported Russian decision to send two warships to Syria has more strategic importance than any possible deal regarding attack helicopters. "The fact that the Russians, I think more importantly, are sending two boats from their navy down to Tartus, and a squadron of marines as well, reflects their sort of more strategic concern. I think they're defending their interests in Syria," he said. Russia has faced increasing Western criticism over arms supplies to Syria, where the United Nations says government forces have killed more than 10,000 people in a crackdown.

Edward Yeranian writes for VOA, from where this article is adapted.


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