Photo: Wikimedia Commons
If Russia’s stance towards the Assad regime is at all softening, it certainly has a peculiar way of demonstrating this, as RIA-Novosti reported Thursday that three Mi-25 gunships are en route to the beleaguered country and should arrive “within days.” Those who have been following the situation closely will no doubt recall that just over a week ago, a cargo ship under the Curaçao flag was first on its way to delivering Russian arms when it was thwarted by the loss of its marine insurance issued by UK’s Standard Club, which fell under the auspices of standing sanctions against Syria.
The event was either a move by Standard Club to head off potential criticism, or a swift political manoeuvre to prevent the delivery of the cargo and its potential use against the civilian opposition movement.
Now, the weapons shipment will be making its way via a Russian-flagged vessel, the brazenness suggesting that Putin is not terribly swayed by U.S. and EU pressure to end its support of Assad’s government and its spiraling reprisal against Syria’s opposition. Russia’s position on the matter has hinged on its opposition to “foreign” intervention, and defends the delivery of the Mi-24 attack helicopters as “defensive in nature.”
The Mi-24, classified by Nato as the “Hind,” is a familiar sight around the world as Russia has supplied successive variants of the helicopter — which first entered Soviet service in 1972 – to over 50 countries, including Venezuela, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Brazil, and has seen service in a long list of conflicts, including the Iran-Iraq war, Nicaragua’s civil war, Sri Lanka’s civil war, and the recent civil war in Libya (where it was used by both sides). The helicopter’s armament can include fixed twin-barrel guns, Yak-B gattling gun, rockets, gunpods and anti-tank missiles.
Claims that the attack helicopters will not be used against civilians might ring somewhat hollow, as UN monitors have already reported the use of helicopters against rebel strongholds in the vicinity of Homs.
Of course, the definition of “civilians” and “rebels” are not necessarily interchangeable, and seem to hinge on Russia’s definition of Syria’s rebellion as an internal matter comprised by a terrorist element. Russia has maintained a naval base at Tartus since 1971, which has served to support naval assets deployed in the Mediterranean sea, with renovations beginning in 2009 to support access to larger naval vessels, partly as Kremlin’s response to development of a US-led missile defence shield – Russia has also been Syria’s main arms supplier since 2006.
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