U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad is receiving new military assistance from Belarus, a tiny nation which appears willing to flout the international effort to isolate the dictator and force him from power.
Western officials and outside analysts say that Belarus is providing Damascus with technology that would improve the capabilities of Assad's surface-to-surface missiles, one of the Syrian military's primary weapons during its brutal ongoing crackdown on rebels throughout the country.
The technology would increase the accuracy of the missiles, making it easier for Assad's forces to target and destroy even well-entrenched and well-hidden rebel positions.
Scott Johnson, an analyst for IHS Jane’s, which researches militaries around the world, said that Belarus's state-owned weapons-development company is suspected of working with its Syrian counterpart to build new "fiber-optic gyroscopes," small pieces of equipment that can make surface-to-surface missiles significantly more accurate.
"It would increase the regime’s ability to deliver destruction with even more deadly precision than with what is currently guiding their missiles," Johnson said.
Western and U.S. officials say they share those concerns, though the three officials acknowledged that they don't have definitive evidence that Belarus is working to prop up Assad.
Still, the suspected Belarussian assistance would significantly boost Assad's military capabilities. Johnson said that the technology would have a "singular" impact on Assad's existing missile inventory and help his forces better find and hit specific rebel positions.
The growing concern about Belarus comes as senior American officials ratchet up criticism of Russia and Iran, Assad's primary international allies. The White House says that Moscow and Tehran are flouting the Western sanctions on Syria and continuing to sell Assad new weaponry and other armaments.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued the Obama administration's fiercest condemnation of Russia to date, accusing Moscow of shipping Assad sophisticated attack helicopters. Clinton said the aircraft would "escalate the conflict quite dramatically."
The administration's high-profile public criticism of Russia is part of a broader effort to get Moscow to drop its support for Assad on the United Nations Security Council. Russia has repeatedly vetoed resolutions authorizing hard-hitting sanctions on Syria or calling for regime change there.
Washington and its allies have no such hope that Iran will drop its support for Assad. The U.S. believes that Iran remains Assad's primary supporter, sending him armaments, special-forces personnel, military trainers, and even bodyguards for the dictator and his family. Assad is Iran's only Arab ally, so Tehran stands to lose much of its regional influence if the strongman falls.
The officials note that Belarus has long maintained close ties with both Iran and Syria and shown no willingness to join the international effort to isolate Assad and force him from power. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, believes that foreign nations shouldn't be allowed to intervene in the internal disputes of a sovereign nation.