US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week expressed concerns regarding new Russian supplies of helicopter gunships to the Assad regime in Syria.
Washington has confronted Russia on its continued shipments to Assad, she said.
Clinton did not go into detail regarding the nature and form of this alleged confrontation with Russia.
But her evident surprise regarding Russian export of advanced attack helicopters to Syria is strange.
The Syrian Air Force’s fleet of attack helicopters has long been composed in the main of Russian-made Mi-25 Hinds. The fact that Russian arms firms are continuing to supply these to Syria does not represent a change or escalation in Russian policy, but rather a continuation of it.
Nor is it news that the Syrian regime employs helicopter gunships in its civil war against the rebels of the Free Syrian Army and against the civilian populations that support them. Evidence for this has long been available in the public sphere.
Syrian oppositionist Ammar Abdul- Hamid and the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, for example, first detailed the use of attack helicopters against civilian protesters in Syria on June 15, 2011.
A report issued in early May by Human Rights Watch went into detail concerning the use of these weapons in what it described as the Syrian Army’s “war crimes” in Idlib Province in northern Syria in March and April.
The US continues, meanwhile, to maintain and develop lucrative contracts with Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms firm that is playing the central role in supplying the Assad regime with the means to continue its repression.
Rosoboronexport is not a private concern.
Its website describes it as a “state corporation.”
Established by presidential decree in 2000, it is the successor to the state arms exporters of the old USSR.
Since 2007, it has been designated as the sole state intermediary agency responsible for Russian export and import of arms.
According to shipping data, at least four major arms shipments have left the port of Oktyabrsk in southern Ukraine, which is used by Rosoboronexport for transporting arms for Syria since December 2011. An additional ship, the MV Chariot, left St. Petersburg in January 2012. The ship, reportedly carrying ammunition supplied by Rosoboronexport, stopped at Limassol in Cyprus before continuing on to its destination – the Russian naval base at Tartous, Syria.
This probably represents only a part of the true provision of Russian arms to the beleaguered dictator.
The US, which officially calls for the downfall of the Assad dictatorship, is nevertheless currently committed to a $375 million deal with Rosoboronexport for the purchase of 21 Mi-17 helicopters intended for the use of the Afghan Air force This is only part of a contract worth just under $1 billion that Rosoboronexport signed with the US Department of Defense on May 26, 2011. The most recent transaction between the DoD and Rosoboronexport is dated November 3, 2011.
The US could unilaterally withdraw from this contract if it chose to do so.
This is what a bipartisan group of 17 senators, led by Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois, is calling for. In a letter sent to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on March 12, 2012, the senators demanded the cancellation of the helicopter contract.
Pentagon Under-Secretary for Policy James Miller rejected the senators’ arguments in a written response in which he argued that the Mi-17 acquisition was “critical” in “building the capacity of the Afghan security forces.”
Afghan pilots are trained on Russian systems. It is cheaper and easier to purchase Russian helicopters than to spend time and money re-training personnel for a shift to Western equipment. Rosoboronexport is happy to supply the equipment needed for the requisite price.
The honeymoon between Rosoboronexport and the Department of Defense is of relatively recent vintage.
The company was the subject of US sanctions up until 2010 for its “illicit aid” to the Iranian nuclear program.
The sanctions were lifted following Russian support in that year for a UN resolution expressing concern at Iran’s nuclear drive. Rosoboronexport still sells weapons to Iran.
The US is not the only country to combine calls for the downfall of Assad with
close commercial relations with his main armorer.
Efforts to persuade
France to cancel Rosoboronexport’s presence at an international arms fair in
Paris this month failed. This is despite newly minted French President François
Hollande’s expressions of theoretical support for possible military action
France evidently sees no contradiction in criticizing the
dictator while embracing his armorer, either.
On the ground in Syria,
there are indications of a recent significant improvement in the performance of
rebel forces and in the quality of the weaponry reaching them. This indicates
the probable accuracy of reports suggesting that the Saudis and Qataris, perhaps
with some US direction, are now engaged in arming the rebels in
Yet this semi-clandestine effort is dwarfed by the visible and
tireless supply of Russian weaponry to the government side in the Syrian civil
war. The agencies undertaking this effort, above all Rosoboronexport, are
continuing to enjoy profitable relations with key Western countries.
business as usual accompanied by statements of concern is the US
administration’s stance toward Assad’s main armorer.
For as long as this
goes on, the US secretary of state is likely to continue to be shocked and
concerned at the equipment available to the Assad regime.
Western policy, meanwhile, will be no less shocked and concerned at the
helplessness of the current US and broader Western response to the crisis in