Her charge of Russia aiding Assad brought a retort of "hypocrisy" from Moscow's foreign minister.
WASHINGTON - When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Russia on Tuesday of shipping attack helicopters to Syria that would "escalate the conflict quite dramatically," it was the Obama administration's sharpest criticism yet of Russia's support for the Syrian government.
What Clinton did not say, however, was whether the aircraft were new shipments or, as U.S. officials say is more likely, helicopters that Syria had sent to Russia a few months ago for routine repairs and refurbishing, and which were now about to be returned.
"She put a little spin on it to put the Russians in a difficult position," said one senior Defense Department official.
Clinton's claim about the helicopters, administration officials said, is part of a calculated effort to raise the pressure on Russia to abandon Syrian President Bashar Assad, its main ally in the Mideast. Russia has so far stuck by Assad's government.
On Wednesday, in response to Clinton's allegations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the United States of hypocrisy, saying Washington had supplied weapons that could be used against demonstrators in other countries in the region. Lavrov, during a visit to Iran, repeated Russia's claim that it was not supplying Damascus with weapons that could be used in a civil war.
"We are not providing Syria or any other place with things which can be used in battles with peaceful demonstrators, unlike the United States, which regularly supplies such weaponry to this region," Lavrov said.
He singled out a recent delivery to "one of the Persian Gulf states" -- perhaps a reference to Bahrain. "But for some reason the Americans consider this completely normal."
Syria has long been a staunch Russian ally and is home to Russia's only naval base on the Mediterranean Sea. But U.S. officials have warned the Russians that Assad's exit is inevitable and that if Russia wants to preserve its influence in Syria, it needs to be part of the effort to arrange a political transition. If Russia is viewed as complicit in the Assad government's attack on its own people, these officials said, it would be shunned by any new Syrian government, as well as the rest of the Arab world.
Administration officials declined to give details about the helicopters, saying the information was classified. But White House and intelligence officials have backed up the substance of Clinton's comments. Some officials said that whether the helicopters were new or refurbished, they were equally deadly when turned against the civilian population.
"What Secretary Clinton said was a continuation of what we've been saying," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "The situation in Syria is obviously terrible. Assad's brutality is unacceptable. He will go down in history as a tyrant who will be loathed by generations of Syrians."
In other developments :
• Syrian forces overran Haffa, a mountain enclave near the Mediterranean coast, seizing the territory back from rebels after eight days of fighting. State television said government forces had "cleansed" Haffa of "armed terrorist groups," and the Foreign Ministry urged U.N. observers to immediately head there "to check what the terrorist groups have done." The observers said they were determining whether they could reach the town.
• French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, speaking in Paris, declared that Syria was in the midst of a civil war. "If you can't call it a civil war, then there are no words to describe it," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.