Senators called on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta this week to end the Pentagon’s relationship with a Russian arms exporter that it supplying the Bashar Assad regime in its slaughter of Syrian civilians.
Rosoboronexport, a defense firm controlled by the Russian government, had been under sanctions until just three years ago for helping Iran. The Department of Defense is currently buying about 21 dual-use Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan military from Rosoboronexport; the contract has the potential to reach $1 billion.
“While it is certainly frustrating that U.S. taxpayer funding is used to buy Russian-made helicopters instead of world-class U.S.-made helicopters for the Afghan military, our specific concern at this time is that the Department is procuring these assets from an organization that had for years been on a U.S. sanctions list for illicit nuclear assistance to Iran and in the face of the international community’s concern is continuing to enable the Assad regime with the arms it needs to slaughter innocent men, women, and children in Syria,” states the letter to Panetta.
Russia is the top arms supplier to Syria, selling more than $1 billion in arms to the regime in 2011 alone. Rosoboronexport reportedly signed a new deal with the Syrian government in January for 36 combat jets.
“U.S. taxpayers should not be put in a position where they are indirectly subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians,” the letter continues. “The sizeable proceeds of these DoD contracts are helping to finance a firm that is essentially complicit in mass atrocities in Syria, especially in light of Russia’s history of forgiving huge amounts of Syria’s debt on arms sales, as occurred in 2005 during President Assad’s state visit to Moscow.”
Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) led the letter, which was cc’d to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The senators ask that the Pentagon “immediately” look for other suppliers for the Afghan helicopters.
It was also signed by 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.).
“We urge you to use all available leverage to press Russia and Russian entities to end their support of the Assad regime, and that includes ending all DoD business dealings with Rosoboronexport, which is within your authority as Secretary of Defense,” the letter states. “Continuing this robust business relationship with Rosoboronexport would undermine U.S. policy on Syria and undermine U.S. efforts to stand with the Syrian people.”
Human rights groups praised Cornyn for confronting the Rosoboronexport relationship in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Syria last week.
“It makes absolutely no sense for the U.S. to continue doing business with companies that are so clearly enabling atrocities,” said Human Rights First’s Sadia Hameed. “It’s hard for the U.S. to have credibility in pushing for a cease fire in Syria when it’s buying arms from the same company supplying those carrying out the ongoing atrocities there.”