On Nov. 27, a clip appeared on YouTube of a Russian-made Syrian military helicopter apparently being hit by Syrian rebels using a surface-to-air missile. The footage of the gunship, smoking as it turns and flies away, suddenly made the most effective killing machines in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military look very vulnerable, as the brutal war between the Syrian government and anti-Assad rebels continues. Luckily for Assad, help appears to be on the way.
One day before the clip appeared, hackers from the group Anonymous leaked what they claim is a cache of documents stolen from the Syrian Foreign Ministry. As first reported by the non-profit investigative news organization, ProPublica, one set appears to detail shipments from Moscow to Damascus of 240 tons of newly printed Syrian money, which the Russian government has publicly acknowledged printing for the Assad regime. Another document looks to be a flight plan for four shipments of refurbished helicopters, also going from Moscow to Syria. The shipments, whose cargo the document lists in English as “old copter after overhauling,” include one delivery on Nov. 21, a second one on Nov. 28, and two more planned for the first week of December. According to the document, the payment for these shipments was made “in cash,” and their circuitous route through the skies above Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan would circumvent the airspace of all the countries that have imposed a weapons embargo on Syria.
(PHOTOS: Inside Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)
“It’s getting to Syria by the back door,” says Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which operates an air-trafficking surveillance project on behalf of the European Union. Griffiths, who says the leaked flight plan appears to be genuine, sees it as the latest step in Russia’s effort to repair and then deliver Assad’s fixed-up helicopters by any means necessary. This effort has already come up against some major hurdles, with the U.S., the E.U. and Turkey making extensive efforts to stop such deliveries from crossing their airspace or territorial waters.
As Syria spirals deeper into a full-scale civil war, Western delegations at the United Nations are increasingly skeptical about the value of appointing a replacement for Kofi Annan as the U.N.-Arab League mediator in the conflict, U.N. envoys say.
When he announced his departure, Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said he was not able to carry out his job with the U.N. Security Council’s veto powers hopelessly deadlocked. Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is backing Damascus, while the United States, Britain and France are calling for Assad’s ouster.
That deadlock persists and complicates the question of whether U.N. political mediation is needed at the moment.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was in discussions with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby on a possible successor to ensure that the diplomatic track is kept open. Several U.N. officials said an announcement could come as early as Friday.
Russia, which expressed regret that Annan chose to step down, is also determined to have someone replace Annan to keep a U.N.-led diplomatic track open. Other council members such as China, South Africa and Pakistan agree with Moscow.
But the Americans, council diplomats say, see little point in replacing Annan. They had grown increasingly frustrated with the veteran diplomat’s refusal to step aside after it became clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would continue to veto any attempt to impose U.N. sanctions on Damascus to force it to end the onslaught against an increasingly militarized opposition.
The Obama administration is instead moving, albeit cautiously, to increase its backing for anti-Assad rebels.
What Exactly Is ‘Non-Lethal’ Aid? Anything not designed to kill. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used for bloody ends
Barack Obama’s administration announced on Aug. 1 that it is setting aside an additional $10 million in “non-lethal” military aid to the anti-Assad rebels in Syria on top of $15 million already committed. U.S. officials suggest that most of the aid will take the form of communications equipment such as encrypted radios. But just what exactly counts as “non-lethal” aid?
Anything that’s not specifically designed to kill someone. Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which defines the role of the armed forces, describes “nonlethal supplies” as anything that “is not a weapon, ammunition, or other equipment or material that is designed to inflict serious bodily injury or death.” In other words, communications equipment, medical supplies, intelligence assistance, body armor, and infrastructure are fine. Guns, ammunition, mines, and missiles are not. It’s a vague definition but a legally significant one. With some restrictions — such as on countries that use child soldiers, though that’s not always a hard-and-fast rule — non-lethal aid can be given to foreign military or law enforcement and drug interdiction agencies under Title 10 or Title 22, which pertains to State Department programs. Lethal aid falls under Title 50, which pertains to war and national defense and requires a full presidential finding and a briefing to congressional leaders.
But just because body armor doesn’t actually kill people doesn’t mean that it can’t be an accessory to the act. Obviously, waging war entails a lot more than just shooting a gun, and the non-lethal aid can have results that are decidedly lethal. A radio transmitter can kill a lot more people than a rifle if, say, it’s used to call in an airstrike or trigger an improvised explosive device. And a non-lethal truck quickly becomes a weapon when it’s packed with explosives obtained elsewhere. Likewise, a surveillance drone may be designated a non-lethal object, but it can be easily weaponized. There are a lot of gray areas.