Washington and Moscow both stepped on the brakes late Wednesday and early Thursday, June 13-14, to shut down the fusillade of accusations shooting back and forth between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over weapons supplies to opposing sides of the Syrian conflict.
US intelligence circles coolly corrected Clinton’s allegation that Russia was supplying helicopters for the Assad regime to kill civilians, stating that Moscow was only returning damaged choppers from the Syrian arsenal after they underwent repairs in Russia, as per their sales contracts.
The Russian foreign ministry said Lavrov had been mistranslated: He had not accused the US of supplying arms to Syrian rebels – only to the region.
The sources in Washington went on to contradict Clinton’s denial of US arms supplies to Syrian rebels by confirming that, while US supplies were not direct, they were going through via third parties in the Gulf. The weapons in question were mostly anti-tank missiles channeled through Qatar and the United Arab Emirate.
Obama acted expeditiously to squelch the “Cold War” rhetoric of his secretary of state so as not to derail the current British-German effort to broker an understanding between Washington and Moscow for ending the civil war crisis in Syria.
Moscow and Washington agree that Assad must go, don’t they?
While the British are working through overt lines, the German channel is confidential, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report.
Thursday, June 14, Foreign Secretary William Hague met Lavrov in Kabul where both attended a conference of 29 governments on the future of Afghanistan.
Berlin, in contrast, is working through the secret channel used by the German Central Intelligence Agency, the BND, to communicate with its opposite numbers in Moscow, and the link between German and Russian defense ministries. These arms of Russian government execute Vladimir Putin’s Syrian policy.
The two mediators carried six messages to Russian officials:
1. At this juncture, neither the Obama administration nor European Union governments has any intention of using military force in Syria.
2. Neither is any “light military intervention” planned.
3. Since Washington and Moscow both, at least in their public statements, accept the possibility of Bashar Assad stepping down, there is no reason why they should not agree to Alawite political leaders and Syrian army chiefs, most of whom belong to this sect, escorting Assad and his family to an airplane flying them to exile in Moscow.
Moscow must agree to heavy weapons for the rebels
This would take place after agreement is reached on the makeup of the transitional military government and a general is chosen as its head.
The British and German brokers were to assure the Russians that this arrangement would serve their interests.
4. This message sought to straighten the record. Kremlin policy errs in relying on Russian intelligence figures to gauge the proportion of Assad’s Alawite sect in relation to the general population of Syria, because those figures come from a 30-year old population census. The European go-betweens were asked to point out to Russian officials that contemporary Alawite numbers are 20-30 percent below the official figure of 2.2 million, and therefore far below 10 percent of the total population of 22 million souls.
The Russians are therefore doing themselves a disservice by putting all their Syrian eggs in the Alawite basket.
5. Alawite civilians or members of the military will never defy the Syrian president until they are sure the rebels are armed with weapons capable of vanquishing the Syrian army.
Therefore, the two intermediaries must persuade the Russians to countenance US, Arab and European arms supplies to the Syrian rebels according to lists approved jointly by Washington and Moscow. Disaffected Alawites would then step forward to get rid of the president and replace him.
Russians more amenable to reassessing Assad’s fate
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources explain that the issue of who supplied the two sides of the Syrian conflict with what was the crux of the scrap between Clinton and Lavrov.
6. In the view of British and Germany policy-makers, the Obama and Putin administrates share a pressing interest in bringing the vicious bloodshed in Syria to an end, because the longer it goes on, the more likely it is that radical Islamist Salafi elements will use it to seize control of the Syrian uprising as a parachute to power in Damascus.
German officials handling the contacts with Moscow have told our sources they have noticed a shift in Russia’s solid backing for Assad and his regime. Officials in Moscow were disappointed to see the Syrian ruler resorting in the past two weeks to massive artillery and tank bombardments for winning the war.
After this tactic failed, they appeared to be rather more amenable to a fresh assessment of what is to become of Bashar Assad.