The Barack Obama administration is facing growing difficulty reconciling its goals for Afghanistan, Syria and Russia as Congress tries to block a controversial US arms deal with Russian military suppliers of the Damascus regime.
With new reports Tuesday (June 12) that Russia is providing attack helicopters to Syria, the US Defense Department is struggling to justify a $375 million deal to buy similar helicopters for the Afghan Air Force from the same Russian agency.
The political spillover from the arrangement with Moscow has put the US State and Defense Departments out of sync and left President Obama open to an election-year charge of double-dealing on foreign policy.
The dilemma crystallized Tuesday at the Brookings Institution where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with Israeli President Shimon Peres at her side, charged that Russia was preparing to send more attack helicopters to Syria as part of another major arms package.
“We are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria,” Clinton said, warning that giving more firepower to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad “will escalate the conflict quite dramatically.”
Clinton did not disclose the source of her intelligence on the helicopter delivery, but arms control groups have documented previous Russian shipments to Syria of weaponry ranging from artillery and anti-ship missiles to helicopters and fighter jets.
Moscow has maintained that the shipments only involved weapons to be used for “self-defense,” and in Berlin last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said “Russia is not supplying arms [to Syria] that could be used in civil conflicts.”
But Clinton said “We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria. They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn’t worry — everything they are shipping is unrelated to [the Syrian government’s] actions internally. That’s patently untrue.”
Clinton pointedly made no mention of the US purchase of 21 Russian Mi-17 helicopters for Afghanistan that will benefit Rosoboronexport, Moscow’s state-run arms trader. Both the State Department and Defense Department approved the buy earlier this year.
Clinton’s remarks provided an opening for Sen. John Cornyn (R, Tex.), who doubles as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the drive to defeat President Obama in November.
Cornyn has been at the forefront of a bipartisan group of Senators and House members who have charged that the US was complicit in “mass murder” in Syria by dealing with Rosoboronexport.
The Congressional critics have alleged that the helicopter contract could eventually amount to $1 billion, when spare parts, maintenance and options to buy more helicopters are included. The critics also note that, until two years ago, Rosoboronexport was blacklisted by the US for violating United Nations sanctions on arms deals with Iran.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Cornyn said, “I remain deeply troubled that the Department of Defense would knowingly do business with a firm that has enabled mass atrocities in Syria. Such actions by Rosoboronexport warrant the renewal of US sanctions against it, not a billion-dollar contract.”
Cornyn said he would block the nomination by Obama of Heidi Shyu to be the Army’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics until the administration reversed course on the helicopter buys.
“The DoD [Department of Defense] and the Army must end their practice of handing no-bid contracts to this problematic Russian broker and instead conduct full and open competition for all future Mi-17 procurement,” Cornyn said.
At an international arms show in Paris Tuesday (June 12), where Rosobornexport was drumming up sales, Igor Sevastyanov, the deputy chief executive officer of the arms company, said the firm was operating within the law.
“No one can ever accuse Russia of violating the rules of armaments trade set by the international civil community,” Sevastyanov said, according to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.
But Human Rights Watch, an international group that monitors human rights abuses worldwide, called on the US to cancel the deal with Rosobornexport.
The US should “ensure that all tender agreements are not using US tax dollars to purchase arms from Rosoboronexport,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
“In addition, Secretary Clinton should use international pressure to obtain disclosure of these cargo manifests from the Russian authorities and to impress on them that if Russian weapons continue to be supplied and are being used in the commission of crimes against humanity in Syria, it makes Rosoboronexport and the Russian authorities enablers of these crimes,” the statement said.
At the Pentagon, Defense Department officials were blindsided by Clinton’s condemnation of Russian support for Syria, and they labored through a testy news conference to deny charges of “hypocrisy” and “dealing with the devil” in attempting to justify the helicopter deal.
“I don’t, I don’t, I don’t like to make deals with any devil here. We’re not buying helicopters for the, for the Syrian regime. We’re buying helicopters in support of the Afghan Air Force,” said George Little, the Pentagon press secretary.
US commanders in Afghanistan have said that Afghan pilots are more familiar with the Russian helicopters, which are less complicated and easier to fly than US versions. The commanders also stress the need to get the Afghans flying quickly as NATO allies speed troop withdrawals.
Little said there was no alternative to buying the Mi-17s from Russia, but “We understand the concerns. We’re not ignoring them. But I would make the point that, in the case of Afghanistan, the Mi-17 is about giving them what they need and what they can use effectively to take on their own fights inside their own country.”
“The Mi-17 helicopter, from our vantage point, is about Afghanistan,” Little said. “It’s about equipping the Afghan air force with what they need to ensure that they have the capabilities from an air standpoint to defend themselves. This is part of their fleet which they have the skills and expertise to use and use effectively. It complements their rotary aircraft capabilities and, at this point, I believe this is the only legally available method to provide these helicopters.”
Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged that Syria was using Rosoboronexport-supplied helicopters for attacks on the Syrian opposition.
“We know that the Assad regime is using helicopter gunships against their own people,” Kirby said. “I don’t have, you know, the blow-by-blow of exactly what day and when and what type of aircraft they’re using. Frankly, the type of airframe is immaterial. That they are using helicopter gunships against their own people is intolerable, unacceptable and just further evidence of the degree to which they’re willing to kill their own people for twisted ends.”
Little and Kirby also denied that the helicopter deal was an attempt to curry favor with Russia for its aid in keeping open the “Northern Distribution Network” for supplies to US and allied forces in Afghanistan.
The US has been forced to rely on the northern route through Russia, Uzbekistan and other neighboring states since Pakistan shut off the southern routes last November to protest the killing of more than 20 Pakistani troops in a US air strike. The US will also have to use the northern route to withdraw its troops and massive amounts of equipment as the draw-down of allied forces speeds up later this summer.
“I don't think we’re linking the two,” Kirby said of doing business with Russia despite concerns over Syria. But he said that “Russia has been extraordinarily helpful. And we’re grateful for the assistance that they’ve offered with respect to logistics routes in and out of northern Afghanistan…”
“We have complex relationships with lots of countries, and there are lots of countries we deal with where we have disagreements over other issues,” Kirby continued. “And sometimes there are larger strategic umbrella issues, whether it’s human rights or things like that. But we try to find common cause. We try to look at the areas where we can agree and we do agree and work on those as well as we can.”
Richard Sisk is a veteran Pentagon correspondent, most recently for the New York Daily News.