It was announced yesterday in the House of Commons by British Foreign Secretary William Hague that the MV Alaed, the ship that is transporting Russian attack helicopters to Syria, has reportedly turned back to Russia. It was located about 50 miles off the north coast of Scotland when it changed course. If true, this is a positive development.
The U.S. and the European Union have placed an arms embargo on Syria that prohibits commercial transactions—such as the provision of maritime insurance—that contribute to breaches of that embargo. Consequently, it is likely that this change in course by the MV Alaed came after a U.K. government intervention that encouraged the ship’s insurers, based in London, to abide by the arms embargo and withdraw cover for the Russian firm that owns the ship.
Russia has a long track record of equipping the Syrian Armed Forces, so this latest incident should not come as a surprise. The Soviet Union backed Syria in three Arab–Israeli wars, the failed 1970 intervention in Jordan on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and during the 1982 Lebanon war.Russia also maintains its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union in the Syrian coastal city of Tartus.
The shipment of helicopter gunships would have had a murderous effect on the Syrian people. Although the Assad regime does most of its killing on the ground, it has been reported that the regime has stepped up its use of helicopter gunships in recent weeks as its army, police, and internal security forces have become increasingly strained.
On a positive note, the turning back of the Russian ship could be a psychological boost for the Syrian opposition. It sends a signal that their cause has not been ignored by the outside world. However, it is likely that the story of the helicopters is not over.
Once the ship returns to Russia, if indeed that is where it is heading, there are a number of ways that the helicopters can find their way to Syria. They could be airlifted in Russian cargo planes, which is a common practice used by most militaries to move helicopters around the world. If the Russian air force agreed to transport them, then this would bypass any insurance requirements that might normally be needed by a private company.
The helicopters could also travel by rail through Russia to the Black Sea and then be transported by cargo ship via the Bosphorus. This would depend on finding a shipping company and maritime insurance broker willing to take on the associated risks. It would also be interesting to see how Turkey would react to this.
While the change in course of the MV Alaed is a small, if only temporary, victory for the Syrian people, it does not change the fact that the Obama Administration’s “reset” policy with Russia has been a complete failure. It also shows the irresponsibility of the Russian government to allow a transfer of attack helicopters to a regime that is responsible for the brutal slaughter of more than 15,000 of its own citizens. Once again, President Obama has been left behind while trying to lead from behind.