Tuesday, February 20, 2018

State Department says Russian helicopters in Syria are refurbished, not new

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's accusation that Russia "dramatically" escalated the crisis in Syria lost steam Thursday when the State Department acknowledged that the helicopters she accused Moscow of sending were actually refurbished ones already owned by the Assad regime.

The claim had complicated the Obama administration's larger goals for Syria and U.S.-Russia relations before a key meeting of the nations' two leaders.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland insisted that the nuance meant little, even as she refused to explain why the department didn't divulge the information earlier.

"Whether they are new or they are refurbished, the concern remains that they will be used for the exact same purpose that the current helicopters in Syria are being used, and that is to kill civilians," Nuland told reporters.

The United States fears Syria is sliding into a violent sectarian free-for-all and that if there is any window left to negotiate a deal with President Bashar Assad, it is slamming shut. Russia is seen as a key go-between, although its influence over Assad is far from total. And until now, Moscow has shown little willingness to help in the U.S.-led effort on a political transition plan that would end the Assad family's regime.

With opposition groups estimating that 13,000 people have died, the impasse over Syria will likely be a main topic of President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin's meeting next week.

On Thursday, the State Department's No. 2 official, William Burns, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Afghanistan. The talks were said to be constructive but differences remained.

"We don't see eye to eye on all of the issues but our discussions continue," Clinton said. "The work is urgent because the Syrian government continues to attack its own people and the bloodshed has not ceased, and we have to do everything we can to end the violence and create a framework for a transition."

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