In the aftermath of determining that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did indeed use chemical weapons against his own people, the Obama administration decided to finally pull the trigger on sending lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. While the White House and Department of Defense have been extremely circumspect in releasing details of what that entails, numerous reports have indicated that the opposition will be receiving ammunition, light arms, and anti-tank weaponry from the United States in the coming weeks. Most recently, the Wall Street Journal reported on the existence of a series of warehouses where the weapons to be handed out to the rebels are currently being stockpiled.
Despite this shift in policy, the rebels still remain unimpressed both with the quality of weapons they’re receiving as well as the time it’s taking to to reach them. The arms being provided — which don’t seem to include anti-aircraft missiles and other technology the U.S. fears proliferation of — will not be enough to stop the Syrian Army in their attempt to quash the rebellion, they argue.
The Syrian armed forces do remain well-armed, thanks to the continuing support of the Russian government. Arms shipments from the Russian Federation to Damascus have continued unabated for the majority of the conflict, though Russia has defended its actions as the fulfillment of previous contracts. The vast majority of these weapons come through Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-owned aircraft and weapons dealer. It’s Rosoboronexport that sells some of the most famous Russian weaponry, including the MiG and Mi-24 fighter jets. They’re also the provider of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system, the very threat of which going to Syria was enough to make Israel threaten Moscow with retaliatory measures.
Syria is far from Rosoboronexports’s only client, though, with governments around the world purchasing their wares, including Brazil, India, China — and the United States. Specifically, the U.S. in the last two weeks announced a contract modification worth more than $500 million would go to the Russian company, on top of the $546 million it had already committed in the contract’s previous forms.
So why would the U.S. be paying over a billion dollars to a company that is actively working against them in Syria? The answer: Afghanistan.
The contract in question was procured in 2011, the first major deal penned between Russia and the Department of Defense, to purchase a set of Mi-17 helicopters for the use of the Afghan armed services. Specifically, the thirty new helicopters purchased under the most recent modification will be for the use of Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) Special Mission Wing. The purchase of these aircraft for the army was nothing new, but it had previously been conducted “under a NATO contract as part of a U.S.-run procurement deal.”
The transaction, however, went against the wishes of Congress, which had in the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) forbade the Pentagon from conducting business with Rosoboronexport so long as they continued arming Syria. The only exception would be if the Secretary of Defense determined such an action would be in the interest of national security. At the time of the sale, Pentagon spokesman James Gregory argued that going to Russia was in the interest of national security, saying, “Given current timelines, the department has determined that Rosoboronexport is the only viable means of meeting ANSF requirements” for the helicopters.
That explanation did little to diminish Congress’ displeasure, however, especially that of Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the author of the ban. In response, DeLauro crafted a new ban, which was added as an amendment to this year’s NDAA, that would required quite a bit more of an explanation from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were he to choose to waive the provision again. The Pentagon would in that case have to provide not only its justification for going around the ban, but also provide a list of contracts the Syrian government had signed with Rosonboronexport since the current year began and how many S-300s had been delivered to Damascus during the same period.
It also does little to change the fact that the weaponry Assad is using to fight against the rebels is being provided through the same company the United States is using to help fight a completely different war. In paying for the Syrian rebels’ arms as well, the question for Washington seems to be whether it believes continuing to do business with that company makes it, in essence, fighting against itself.