Pentagon Holds Fast to Troubling Relationship with Assad's Arms Supplier

Last week, Human Rights First called on the Obama administration, which was talking tough in response to the latest atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, to take “immediate steps that make clear that the U.S. commitment to peace in Syria goes beyond rhetoric.”

“Weapons from the Russian-based arms dealer Rosoboronexport continue to flow to Syria,” said Human Rights First’s Sadia Hameed, noting reports of a new Russian arms shipment to the Syria government just the week before. “The State and Treasury Departments have untapped tools at their disposal to stop these deliveries and they should use them.”

Yet not only did the Obama administration remove sanctions from the Russian arms giant — imposed by President George W. Bush in 2008 for transferring missile and nuclear technology to Iran and Syria — but this Pentagon awarded state-owned Rosoboronexport a $375 million no-bid contract just two months after the Syrian uprising began.

And the arms giant is bidding for more: On Friday, the company announced that it is angling to sell ammunition to U.S. forces. Five suppliers competing for a U.S. military contract have invited Rosoboronexport to act as a sub-contractor, Bloomberg reported.

“That’s going the wrong way,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told PJM today, adding that the prospect of another deal “would trouble me greatly.”

“I want the U.S. military to stop their business with Rosoboronexport, not expand the relationship,” he added.

Cornyn has been leading a charge in the upper chamber against the Pentagon’s relationship with the arms dealer, which began after the 2010 lifting of sanctions that conveniently occurred three days after Russia backed a United Nations draft resolution on Iran’s nuclear program.

In March, Cornyn and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) led a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asking that U.S. taxpayers “not be put in a position where they are indirectly subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians.” The senators, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), David Vitter (R-La.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), asked that the Pentagon “immediately” look for other suppliers for the Afghan military’s helicopters.

Russia is the top arms supplier to Syria, selling more than $1 billion in arms to the regime in 2011 alone. The Defense Department contract for the Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghanistan Air Force has the potential to reach $1 billion as well.

On March 30, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller wrote Cornyn, explaining that the Mi-17 was deemed to be a necessary craft for the Afghans, and buying directly from Rosoboronexport, the sole entity controlling export of the military helicopters, reduces the risk of acquiring counterfeit products and ensures access to the manufacturer’s technical data.

“I share your concern that Rosoboronexport continues to supply weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime and acknowledge there is evidence that some of these arms are being used by Syrian forces against Syria’s civilian population,” Miller wrote. “We have continuously registered and will continue to register our objections with Russia at all levels and at every opportunity.”

“…This in no way excuses Rosoboronexport of its activities with Syria, but our acquisition of these Mi-17 helicopters is a key part of our on-going strategy to hand over the security of Afghanistan to the Afghan people.”

But while stating the technical rationale for continuing to deal with Rosoboronexport, Miller made it easy to read between the Russia “reset” lines, stating plainly that dealing with the state arms firm that supplies Assad “supports the president’s continuing efforts to build improved relations with Russia.”

“That’s baloney, in my regard,” Cornyn said. “Our relationship with Russia is a one-sided relationship.”

The Russians reacted angrily to the Bush-era sanctions against Rosoboronexport, with the foreign ministry lashing out at the “new relapse of the application of a unilateral sanctions policy by the United States against the Russian organization as an unfriendly act which cannot but have an adverse impact on our dialogue with Washington” and decrying “how many times they have been trying to ‘teach’ our company to live according to other people’s rules.” Defense contractors had been working through international middlemen to keep up discussions with the arms giant around the sanctions.

“I think the administration is being outmaneuvered by Russia,” Cornyn said, referencing the “naiveté” of President Obama’s off-mic comments to Dmitry Medvedev about having more flexibility on missile defense after the election.

“The military tells us that it’s the sole source,” he said of Rosoboronexport and the Mi-17s. “I find it impossible to believe that there are not other sources available.”

Today, Cornyn wrote Panetta, who has not responded to the senator’s earlier concerns with any sort of “satisfactory response.”

“I remain deeply troubled that the DoD would knowingly do business with a firm that has enabled mass atrocities in Syria,” he wrote. “…The DoD’s selection of the Mi-17 as the helicopter of choice for the Afghan military has created an untenable situation, because the DoD failed to consider inherent sourcing challenges with this Russian-manufactured aircraft. While I defer to the professional judgment of our uniformed military leaders regarding which helicopter best meets the requirement, I refuse to accept the DoD’s position that there are no viable alternatives to buying these aircraft through Rosoboronexport. This firm is not the manufacturer of these helicopters; it is merely a broker – a middleman.”

In 2009, the senator noted, while Rosoboronexport was under sanctions, the Pentagon secured four Mi-17s through a private U.S. broker in a competitive process. In addition, the Defense Department has refused to pursue the route of buying and refurbishing the common helicopter.

“The DoD has confirmed that there is an additional requirement for Afghan Mi-17s beyond those that will be procured under the current contract, and it has suggested its intention to continue no-bid contracting with Rosoboronexport,” Cornyn wrote. “I am seriously troubled by the prospect of additional contracts with Rosoboronexport, because it would represent a complete refusal by the DoD to seek out alternatives.”

Cornyn, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, requested a full audit of the Army’s sole-source contract and a “personal commitment” from Panetta to open all future Mi-17 purchases to open, competitive bidding.

The Texas Republican holds some of the cards: “This issue is especially pertinent in light of the Senate’s consideration of the nomination of Ms. Heidi Shyu to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology,” he noted to Panetta. “I hope to be able to support the confirmation of this nominee.”

“That would be my intention, until I get a satisfactory response, is to put a hold on that nominee,” Cornyn told PJM.

A Cornyn aide confirmed that the hold on Shyu has been placed. The aide also confirmed that Cornyn’s office has been working with Human Rights First, which has been pressuring the administration to put the Russian arms exporter back into the sanctions category.

“Treasury should designate Rosoboronexport for sanctions and investigate whether similar tactics can also be used to disrupt shipments of Russian arms to Syria, where attacks have left more than 13,000 dead, most of whom were peaceful demonstrators and unarmed civilians,” said Hameed.

“So far, we’ve been stiff-armed by the Department of Defense on this whole issue,” Cornyn said. “We’re not going to let this thing slide.”