Bill Richardson: US Should Arm Syrian Rebels If Assad Gets Russian Helicopters

As Western nations lashed out at Russia for allegedly sending attack helicopters to war-torn Syria and the death toll in the Middle Eastern nation continues to rise, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson argues that the United States should supply weapons to Syrian rebels in an effort to protect civilians against government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

In an interview with Fox News Latino’s Juan Williams, Richardson said that despite opposing military intervention in Syria, NATO nations should consider training and arming the rebels if Russia sent military supplies.

“This is a humanitarian crisis going on in Syria,” Richardson said. “If the Russians get in there, and there’s evidence of that, I think that would be the defining step to move forward with arming the rebels.”

Russia has denied sending weapons to Syria for use in the internal conflict, and instead argues that the government of Vladimir Putin is fulfilling existing contracts for supplies of air defense systems. Putin, who plans to meet U.S. President Barack Obama next week, denied that Russia is not providing Syria with weapons that could be used in a civil conflict.

The Syrian ambassador to Moscow, Riad Haddad, also denied Thursday allegations by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this week that the U.S. had information that attack helicopters were on the way from Russia to Syria.

"Russia is not delivering any helicopters to Syria," Haddad told the Reuters news agency.

Speaking to a source close to Russia’s weapons export monopoly Rosoboronexport, Reuters reported that while there have been no recent contracts between Russia and Syria for new attack helicopters, at least nine Mi-25 attack helicopters were sent back to Russia in 2009 for repairs and that the shipment could be returning to Damascus now.

If the Russians get in there, and there’s evidence of that, I think that would be the defining step to move forward with arming the rebels.

— Bill Richardson

Three Mi-25s and two multipurpose KA-28 helicopters, owned by Russia’s defense ministry are also believed to have been sent to Syria.

Some critics believe that unlike in Libya, where the combatants and areas of control were more clearly defined, the situation in Syria is too fluid and the United States cannot be sure who they are arming.

“You don’t know who you are arming,” said Judith Miller, a Fox News contributor and Manhattan Institute Scholar. “When you’re talking about arming the rebels, what are you talking about there.”

The fractured structure of the resistance could mean that arming rebels could also arm terrorist groups hostile to the U.S. such as al-Qaeda, Miller added.

Along with Clinton, British Foreign Minister William Hague joined in the criticism of both Russia and Iran, calling on the two nations to use their influence to quell the 15-month civil conflict.

"We haven't at any stage detected Iran being a country that wants to solve the problem rather than exacerbating the problem," Hague said, according to AFP.

Iran is a major supporter of the Assad regime with some experts speculating that the Islamic Republic’s support goes beyond humanitarian and diplomatic assistance and into covert military aid.

In his interview, Richardson advocated for continued sanctions against Iran in an effort to force the country to negotiate about its nuclear policy.

“Sanctions on Iran are working. I would continue the intensive pressure on Iran,” Richardson said. “I think the policy is working and we’re seeing for the first time Iran sending messages that they’re ready to negotiate. I don’t think they’re serious, but at least they’re showing weakness.”

Richardson added that Iran is having a difficult time with its economic situation and, as the death toll in Syria creeps over 10,000 and the crisis rolls into its 15th month, the country’s main ally in the region is in major turmoil.

“Iran is having a rough year with their economic troubles, their political troubles, there main supporter in the region Syria is hurting badly,” Richardson said. “I would continue this policy of intensive pressure and sanctions on Iran.”

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