The delivery of Russian weapons to Syria have helped prolong the three-year old conflict, providing much-needed relief to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government at critical junctures. Russian officials have defended the sales as being firmly under international law and the completion of contracts signed between the two countries long ago. While technically true, these Russian-made weapons have been instrumental in the death of tens of thousands of civilians at the hands of the government’s armed forces in atrocities the vast majority of the international community has condemned.
With that as a background, the report from Human Rights First (HRF) issued on Tuesday sharply condemned the U.S. Department of Defense’s decision last month to continue with the purchase of 30 Mi-17 helicopters from Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport. Doing so puts Washington “in the bizarre position of purchasing weapons from the very supplier that is arming Assad at the same time we’re supplying weapons and aid to Assad’s opponents,” said Human Rights First’s Sonni Efron, the author of the report. Congress this week lifted a hold on the shipment of those weapons to Syria after their concerns regarding the Obama administration’s plans to distribute them were resolved.
The seemingly contradictory U.S. policy is driven home through Human Rights First quoting President Obama’s own words on Syria and preventing further atrocities. “We’re making sure that the United States government has the structures, the mechanisms to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities,” Obama said in a speech just this April. “This is not an afterthought. This is not a sideline in our foreign policy.”
Legislators tried to stop the purchase of items from Rosoboronexport in the first place, placing conditions in the FY13 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would require Russia to halt sales of arms to Syria before any new acquisitions could be completed. DOD went ahead with the purchase anyway under the national security waiver provided in the law, defending the contracts worth nearly a billion dollars as being vital for the growth of the Afghan National Security Forces’ (ANSF) Special Mission Wing. A recent report from the Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), however, disagreed with the notion that the purchases needed to be carried out immediately, citing a lack of readiness on the part of the Afghans.
In response, HRF calls for Congress to pass legislation that “explicitly orders” DOD to cancel all contracts with Rosoboronexport, including the contract extension issued on June 13, 2013, worth nearly half a billion dollars on its own. To prevent further circumvention of Congress’ intent, Human Rights First recommends in its report that lawmakers beef up the conditions for the national security waiver: “1) Rosoboronexport must cooperate with all U.S. auditing agencies and law enforcement inquiries; 2) Rosoboronexport has pledged not to deliver S-300 air defense systems to Syria and, according to intelligence estimates, has not delivered them; 3) No new contracts have been signed between Rosoboronexport and the Government of Syria since January, 2013.”
Several proposals are already in motion to enact some of the changes HRF suggests. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) — the author of the original attempt to block the purchase of Russian wares and a more recent amendment to the FY14 NDAA — has drafted an amendment to this year’s defense appropriations bill to outright block funding from being used to train Afghans on the use of Mi-17s. On the Senate side, Sens. Kelly Ayote (R-NH) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) have introduced legislation to prevent the helicopter deal from being concluded and stripping the Obama administration’s latitude in exercising the national security waiver towards Rosoboronexport.