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."

Rosoboronexport, they added, has stocked Assad's arsenal with guns, grenades, tank parts, attack aircraft, anti-ship cruise missiles, and air defense missiles -- "which the regime in turn uses to perpetuate its rule and murder innocent civilians."

"Assad's actions may require implementation of a no-fly zone over Syria, and S-300s would present a major threat to U.S. or allied aircraft and pilots," the letter continues. "In addition, S-300s could pose a direct threat to Israeli civil and military air traffic."

"American taxpayer dollars should not be provided to a Russian state-owned corporation that is complicit in the murder of thousands of innocent Syrian men, women, and children."

The lawmakers got extra ammunition from the end-of-June inspector general report that found "the Afghans lack the capacity—in both personnel numbers and expertise — to operate and maintain the existing and planned [Special Mission Wing] fleets."

"DOD has not developed a plan for transferring maintenance and logistics management functions to the Afghans," the report continues. "Currently, DOD contractors perform 50 percent of the maintenance and repairs to the SMW’s current fleet of 30 Mi-17s and 70 percent of critical maintenance and logistics management, as well as procurement of spare parts and material."

Challenges in building a force to pilot the crafts "include finding Afghan recruits who are

literate and can pass the strict, 18- to 20-month U.S. vetting process, a process that attempts to eliminate candidates that have associations with criminal or insurgent activity."

In a letter accompanying the report sent to Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko notes that "despite our recommendations, the Department awarded a $553,759,240 contract

modification to Rosoboronexport, a Russian government agency,on June 16, 2013, for 30 Mi-17 helicopters, spare parts, test equipment, and engineering support services."

"We maintain that moving forward with the acquisition of these aircraft is imprudent," Sopko added.

The senators' letter to Hagel last week uses the report, noting "in light of the recommendations of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), we ask you to reconsider the more than $1.11 billion in sole-source contracts over the last three years for Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters, spare parts and maintenance services awarded to Rosoboronexport."

"While we share the goal of providing the Afghan military with sustainable anti-narcotics and counterterrorism operations, the SIGAR has rightfully acknowledged that this program simply does not achieve this goal. Rather, it saddles the Afghan military with a fleet of helicopters they can neither operate nor afford to maintain and provides U.S. tax dollars to a Russian state-controlled arms export firm that is complicit in Assad’s murder of innocent Syrians," they added.

The Obama administration is taking heat not just from Capitol Hill but from human-rights groups disturbed at the double-speak of helping the opposition while inking contracts with Assad's arms supplier.

“Leadership is what is needed today from the U.S. government to bring together those who can influence the situation on the ground in Syria. For the last 18 months the U.S government has hurled strong rhetoric, admonishing Russian authorities for their support of Bashar-al-Assad, all the while forging billion dollar weapons deals with Rosoboronexport in the background,” said Human Rights First’s Sadia Hameed. “If President Obama wants to demonstrate U.S global leadership on Syria then he must be willing to act on it and end the Pentagon’s relationship with Rosoboronexport.”