The United States on Wednesday flatly denied Russian charges of arming Syria's rebels and bluntly urged Moscow to stop shipping weapons to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, warning that the "deteriorating" conflict was "spiraling towards civil war."
"We believe that everyone who is providing weapons to the Assad regime should halt the provision of those weapons," spokesman Jay Carney said at his daily briefing.
"Russia says it wants peace and stability restored. It says it has no particular love lost for Assad. And it also claims to have vital interests in the region and relationships that it wants to continue to keep," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters. "They put all of that at risk if they do not move more constructively right now." The escalating war of words cast a pall on prospects for Russo-U.S. cooperation to end the fighting.
Carney stopped well short of accusing Moscow of being complicit in Assad's bloody 15-month crackdown on his opposition. Outside observers put the death toll at 13,000 people.
"That is not what we're saying," he stressed, but reminded reporters that "Syria and Russia have an arms supply relationship that goes back a half-century."
Carney's comments followed a n angry response from Moscow to Clinton's accusation on Tuesday that a shipment of attack helicopters was "on the way" from Russia to Syria.Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded that Moscow wasn't breaking any laws with the shipment while accusing Washington of "providing arms" to the Syrian opposition, Reuters reported.
"The United States has provided no military support to the Syrian opposition, none," Clinton said when asked about her counterpart's counterpunch. "All of our support has been medical and humanitarian to help relieve the suffering of the Syrian people, a total of $52 million so far."
"We do not and have not supplied weapons to the Syrian opposition. You know our position on that, and we've made it very clear. That position has not changed," Carney agreed when asked about that allegation.
"But the provision of armaments and weapons has been something that we've discussed with the Russians and we consider to be a problem," Carney said.
Carney said there was a "closing window of opportunity" to ease Assad from power "before the situation devolves into a broader sectarian civil war."
"The situation there is deteriorating, it is deteriorating quickly; it is horrific what Assad is doing to his own people," Carney said.
"We believe that the situation is spiraling towards civil war, and it's now time for everyone in the international community, including Russia and all Security Council members, to speak to Assad with a unified voice," Clinton said.
The U.N. peacekeeping chief suggested on Tuesday that Syria was already in the grips of civil war, while Syria's foreign ministry denied that claim and said it was fighting "terrorists." In turn, Carney argued that such semantic distinctions are 'largely irrelevant' given the situation on the ground.
"Defining the terminology now, or debating the terminology now, is far less important than making sure that we're taking actions to -- collectively to bring about that transition," he said.