Lawmakers Jump on Obama, Hagel to Back Out of Mi-17 Contract with Assad's Arms Supplier

Members of Congress are battling the Obama administration over its decision to move forward with a $554 million contract modification with Russia's Rosoboronexport on the principle that the U.S. shouldn't be funneling money to Bashar al-Assad's main arms supplier.

But the special inspector general overseeing Afghanistan's reconstruction has another reason to oppose the deal: it's money spent on 30 Mi-17 helicopters that the Afghans have trouble using and maintaining.

The Mi-17 military helicopters will be used by the Afghan National Security Forces Special Mission Wing; work will be performed in Russia and is expected to be complete by Dec. 31, 2014. The Pentagon maintained that the Mi-17 helicopters requisitioned for the Afghanistan Air Force had to come from the sole entity controlling export of the crafts.

A week ago, after the mid-June news that the Obama administration went around Congress' block of the arms sale by using the national-security-interests loophole, a bipartisan group of senators urged Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to reconsider the contract -- again.

"The inadvisable purchase of these Mi-17 helicopters is facilitated through an entity under the control of the Russian government, which as you are aware has demonstrated time and again its interests are diametrically opposed to our national security," wrote Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

It's even more "unconscionable" to ink the contract "while Prime Minster Putin acknowledges sheltering the fugitive Edward Snowden at the Sheremetyevo airport," they added.

"The Russian state-controlled arms export firm Rosoboronexport continues to provide the Syrian government with the means to perpetrate widespread and systemic attacks on its own people. Rosoboronexport has committed to provide Syria with S–300 advanced anti-aircraft missiles that would protect the air dominance of the Assad regime and facilitate its continued attacks on the civilian population," continues the letter. "Even in the face of crimes against humanity and the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government during the past year, enabled by the regular flow of weapons from Russia, the United States Government has unfortunately continued to procure from Rosoboronexport."

"Section 1233 of S.1197, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, prohibits the use of funds to enter contracts with Rosoboronexport. As we work together to enact this provision into law, we call to your attention that the fact that you currently have the authority to end this contract with Rosoboronexport. Not only does it fail to meet the requirements of the Afghan military, but it also provides U.S. taxpayers’ dollars to the Russian government as it shelters a fugitive from justice and undermines U.S. policy on Syria."

The plea to Hagel comes more than a year after his predecessor, Leon Panetta, was asked by the same group to intervene in the "serious policy problem."

Yesterday, Ayotte and Begich went straight to the top in asking President Obama to "end all financial dealings with Rosoboronexport and to impose sanctions against Rosoboronexport and Russian manufacturers that provide military equipment such as advanced anti-aircraft systems to Syria in contravention of U.S. law."

Until just three years ago, Rosoboronexport had been the subject of U.S. sanctions for assisting Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. Russia is the top arms supplier to the regime in Syria, selling more than $1 billion in arms to the regime in 2011 alone.

Ayotte and Begich noted that Russia just decided to sell the S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria, a deal that "will challenge American interests in the region, including the safety and security of Israel."