7-19-2012By Winny Chen
Crimes Against Humanity
Back in March, a bipartisan group of 17 senators led by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressing their grave concern about the ongoing atrocities in Syria. The senators urged Secretary Panetta to “use all available leverage to pressure Russia and Russian entities to end their support of the Assad regime,” including by terminating the Department of Defense’s $1 billion contract with a Russian state weapons exporter arming Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
In the months since, the Pentagon has done little to change its arrangement with the Russian weapons company Rosoboronexport. Indeed, despite Undersecretary for Policy James Miller’s acknowledgment “that Rosoboronexport continues to supply weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime,” and that “there is evidence that some of these arms are being used by Syrian forces against Syria’s civilian population,” the Pentagon moved forward with its business relationship with the Russian firm. In doing so, it cited its need for helicopters from Rosoboronexport as “part of our ongoing strategy to hand over security of Afghanistan to the Afghan people.”
Just last month, Defense officials notified Congress of their plans to exercise an optional clause in the contract to purchase an additional ten helicopters from Rosoboronexport. Along with two helos bought earlier this year, the new transaction translates to another $217.7 million going to the same company supplying Assad’s forces with military equipment. Lawmakers were outraged by the announcement, and the Pentagon’s misstep prompted another letter from Congress – this time from a bipartisan group of House representatives, led by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).
Meanwhile, the crisis in Syria has dramatically worsened. Syria’s death toll has climbed from 7,500 in March to a reported 17,000 today; while massacres, like this month’s Tremseh, have sadly become a regular feature in the news. International efforts to stem the violence come and go, and world leaders are still searching for a diplomatic solution to rein in Syria’s civil war – a daunting task given Russia’s unwavering support, political and material, to the Assad regime.
U.S. lawmakers, too, are resolute in their position that moving Russia is key to resolving the Syrian problem. They’re pushing forward with efforts to isolate the Russian weapons industry, even if it means holding the Pentagon’s feet to the fire. Provisions targeting the DoD-Rosoboronexport contract now appear in both House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act. Moreover, Sen. Cornyn has a hold on the nomination of Heidi Shyu for Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology until the Pentagon pledges to take action against Rosoboronexport. And with both the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 and the Magnitsky bill moving through the Senate, we can expect even greater scrutiny of Russia’s human rights record by U.S. lawmakers.
Together, these bi-cameral, bipartisan efforts may finally be working. The Pentagon recently signaled its openness to compromise on the Rosoboronexport contract by considering cancellation of the option for an additional twenty helicopter and cessation of the contract after the current buy. The cancellation would be a win for human rights groups working to end the facilitation of human rights abuses in Syria and would send an important signal to Russia that even in this polarized political atmosphere, some U.S. lawmakers will come together to fight mass atrocities.