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Congress Fights Pentagon Payments to 'Key Enabler of Atrocities in Syria'

WASHINGTON — Congressional opponents of the Pentagon’s contract with Russia’s state arms exporter are gearing up to issue fresh demands that the Obama administration end its half-billion-dollar deal with Rosoboronexport.

Lawmakers’ anger over the deal isn’t new; the Senate passed by unanimous consent last November Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) amendment to the defense authorization bill to stop contracting with the arms giant. Russia is the top arms supplier to Syria, selling more than $1 billion in arms to the regime in 2011 alone.

“The American taxpayer should not be indirectly subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians, especially when there are perfectly good alternatives for purchasing these same arms through U.S. brokers,” Cornyn said then. “Continuing this robust business relationship with Rosoboronexport would continue to undermine U.S. policy on Syria and U.S. efforts to stand with the Syrian people.”

The administration bypassed the amendment by using a national security loophole to not only keep the contract but up its value.

In June, the Defense Department announced a $572,180,894 firm-fixed-price contract modification for 30 Mi-17 helicopters, spare parts, test equipment, and engineering support services. The Pentagon maintained that the Mi-17s requisitioned for the Afghanistan Air Force had to come from the sole entity controlling export of the crafts.

Until just three years ago, Rosoboronexport had been the subject of U.S. sanctions for assisting Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

PJM has learned that the main opponents of that contract will be renewing a push against the administration next week.

The chemical weapons attack that killed 1,429 people including at least 426 children came just 16 days after the latest letter from Cornyn and his colleagues asking that the “troubling” contract be canceled.

“As you know, while Rosoboronexport receives huge payments from DoD, it also continues to serve as a key enabler of atrocities in Syria, transferring weapons and ammunition to prop up the bloodthirsty regime of Bashar al-Assad. DoD has confirmed that Assad’s forces have used these very weapons to murder Syrian civilians, and the United Nations estimates that over 100,000 people have been killed. DoD has now awarded well over $1 billion in no-bid contracts to this Russian state-controlled firm, which handles more than 80% of Russia’s arms exports. What’s more, as recently as 2005, Russia reportedly forgave more than $10 billion of Syria’s past arms sales debt. As such, DoD has put American taxpayers in the repugnant position of subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians,” stated the letter to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey.

“We are concerned by DoD’s apparent failure to consider the strategic implications of sourcing mission-critical military equipment from a potentially hostile power such as Russia. DoD’s preference for Russian helicopters will also make it highly difficult to achieve robust interoperability between the U.S. and Afghan helicopter fleets, which is in the long-term interests of both nations. These problems are self-inflicted, and this policy is extremely shortsighted.”

Cornyn’s Aug. 5 letter was signed by Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), David Vitter (R-La.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Today, Blumenthal and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) issued a joint statement calling for the immediate cancellation of the Rosoboronexport contract after a Defense Department inspector general’s report found the U.S. Army’s aviation unit improperly administered the repair and maintenance of Mi-17 helicopters for Pakistan.

The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction had already labeled the Russia contract “highly imprudent” because the Afghan military had problems both operating the helicopters and affording maintenance.

“These latest allegations of wrongdoing are deeply troubling and must be fully investigated and prosecuted if warranted. They also underscore our urgent call that the wasteful and misguided contract with Rosoboronexport be immediately cancelled,” Blumenthal and DeLauro wrote. “These sole-source contracts for Russian-made helicopters have always been an unconscionable waste of taxpayer money.”

“To learn now of the Army’s gross mishandling of this program just underscores this point,” they continued. “Further, Rosoboronexport continues to sell arms to Syria for the murder and slaughter of their own people. With revelations of a criminal investigation, this imprudent and harmful contract has now reached new lows we thought impossible. We reiterate and amplify our call to the Department of Defense to immediately cancel this contract and stop this waste and abuse today.”

Syrian opposition sources said that the munitions used to deliver the chemical weapons to the Damascus suburb may have either been made locally (though not by amateurs, as evidenced by the rocket construction, effectiveness and serial numbering) or by one of Syria’s allies, and are believed to be designed to fit the Iranian Falaq-2 or Fajr-5 rocket launcher.

One opposition source located a Russian ATK-EB mechanical delay fuze, or ignition device, near one of the impact sites. The fuzes have long been found at strike sites from Assad’s forces, and generally bear dates from the end of the Soviet era.

Intelligence community representatives did not respond to comment requests on the delivery system.

The unclassified report on the strike released today by the White House said the “high confidence” finding that Assad committed the attack included “intelligence pertaining to the regime’s preparations for this attack and its means of delivery, multiple streams of intelligence about the attack itself and its effect, our post-attack observations, and the differences between the capabilities of the regime and the opposition.”

“…The Syrian regime has the types of munitions that we assess were used to carry out the attack on August 21, and has the ability to strike simultaneously in multiple locations. We have seen no indication that the opposition has carried out a large-scale, coordinated rocket and artillery attack like the one that occurred on August 21,” the report adds.

Reuters reported this week that Assad has been making payments on a $1 billion contract for four S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems and a $550 million contract for 36 Yak-130 trainer fighter planes, and is making payments to help keep Russia on his side.

Assad’s uncle is reportedly camping out in a Moscow hotel to easily facilitate the arms deals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has increased small-arms sales to Assad in recent months, with a dramatic increase in the flow of both cargo and military ships via Oktyabrsk, a Black Sea port in Ukraine used often by Rosoboronexport for arms shipments, to the Syrian port of Tartous.

Russia’s veto at the Security Council proved to be the expected block to any consensus on action against Assad this week.