Russia Denies Sending Helicopters Into Syria

The gunships delivered to Syria were probably updated versions of helicopters it had purchased in Soviet times.

Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopters in service with the Afghan Air Force take off in a formation practice, April 12, 2007
Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopters in service with the Afghan Air Force take off in a formation practice, April 12, 2007 (USAF/SergeantCecilio M. Ricardo Jr.)

Russia on Friday denied that it had sent helicopters gunships into wartorn Syria to aid the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in its fight against insurgents. “There are no new deliveries of Russian military helicopters to Syria,” the Foreign Ministry said on its website.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced Russian support for Assad on Tuesday. She said that the United States were “concerned about the latest information we have, that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically.”

According to the Russians, “there were previously planned repairs of military equipment delivered to Syria many years ago.” They could be telling the truth.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia has not sold any helicopters to Syria since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Supposedly, Russia did agree in 2005 to modernize Syria’s Soviet-made Mi-24 helicopters originally purchased in the 1980s. “Russian media is speculating that American intelligence confused the return shipment of Syria’s own (newly modernized) helicopters for brand new helicopters that have been sold to Syria,” writes Dmitri Gorenburg, a senior analyst for the CNA think tank.

Gorenburg notes that it would be very difficult for the two countries to conduct a military sale in secret. He recognizes that there is the possibility that Russia is supplying Syria with helicopters from its own inventory. “But that seems unlikely given the relative scarcity of good equipment in the Russian military after years of low procurement.” It’s likelier that the helicopters are in fact the modernized Syrian Mi-24s, rather than new ones secretly sold to Syria.

In March of this year, there were rumors of Russian troops landing in the Syrian port of Tartus where the Russians have had a naval base since the 1970s. That report also turned out to be an exaggeration. Rather a tanker vessel harbored at Tartus for refueling, carrying with it a small regiment of troops because it had been deployed for counterpiracy mission in the Gulf of Aden.

Moscow does want to keep Assad in power — he is Russia’s only Arab ally and if Assad is overthrown, it could embolden separatist movements in Russia’s own outer provinces — but that is not to say that it will get its own forces entangled in what is increasingly a civil war between minority Alawites who support Assad and majority Sunnis, backed by Saudi Arabia, who seek to depose him.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Syrian Mi-17 helicopters when, in fact, the Mi-24 type has recently underwent upgrades.