US worried Russia may be sending Syria helicopters
Reuters, Jun 12 2012
The US is worried Russia may be sending Syria attack helicopters and views Russian claims that its arms transfers to Syria are unrelated to the conflict there as “patently untrue,” Sec State Clinton said on Tuesday. The comments came as the Pentagon found itself on the defensive for doing business with Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, given concerns in Congress about the firm’s role in arming the Syrian regime. Clinton said while at an event with President Shimon Peres at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy:
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’re shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That’s patently untrue, and we are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically.
State Dept spokeswoman Nuland told reporters that Clinton was concerned about helicopters now en route to Syria and not about possible past sales of Russian-origin attack helicopters to Syria. She said that she could not elaborate or speculate on the source of Clinton’s information. Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby said he had no knowledge of a new helicopter shipment but acknowledged that Assad’s regime was turning to helicopters to stage attacks. Kirby said:
We know that the Assad regime is using helicopter gunships against their own people.
Asked whether Russia’s resupply of military equipment to Syria was enabling the Syrian armed forces to continue the killings, Kirby said:
To the degree that the Syrian armed forces use that resupply to kill their own people, then yes.
The Syrian government’s use of Russian-made arms has thrown a spotlight on the Pentagon’s purchase of Russian helicopters for the Afghan military, which the US is building up so that it can take over security as US troops withdraw. This week, US Senator John Cornyn, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Sec Def Panetta branding Russian export firm Rosoboronexport “an enabler of mass murder in Syria.” Cornyn wrote:
I remain deeply troubled that they would knowingly do business with a firm that has enabled mass atrocities. Such actions by Rosoboronexport warrant the renewal of US sanctions against it, not a billion-dollar contract.
A Cornyn aide told Reuters the senator put a hold on the nomination of Heidi Shyu to serve as Asst Sec Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology, as a way to pressure the Pentagon over the matter. But the Pentagon said dealing with Rosoboronexport was the only legal way to supply the helicopters to Afghanistan and attempted to differentiate between the two conflicts. Pentagon spokesman Little said:
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 Pentagon’s Kirby dismissed concerns that US reliance on ground supply routes through Russia hampered its ability to speak out over arms shipments to Syria. But at the same time, he repeatedly stressed the need to blame Assad for the atrocities, as opposed to overly focusing on weapons suppliers. He said:
The focus really needs to be more on what the Assad regime is doing to its own people than the cabinets and the closets to which they turn to pull stuff out. It’s really about what they’re doing with what they’ve got in their hands.
In a March letter to Cornyn, Under-Sec Def for Policy James Miller acknowledged:
Rosoboronexport continues to supply weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime and there is evidence that some of these arms are being used by Syrian forces against Syria’s civilian population.