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.