By Jill Dougherty
Angered by Russia's refusal to stop selling arms to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, U.S. lawmakers are urging the Defense Department to halt U.S. purchases of Russian helicopters and parts for the Afghan air force.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, 17 senators said that "U.S. taxpayers should not be put in a position where they are indirectly subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians." The letter, dated Monday, was sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well.
But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Tuesday defended the Russian-Afghan deal, saying that although "we obviously share the intent" of the senators' demands to persuade Russia to end its arms supply to Syria, "cutting off U.S. purchases would hurt Afghanistan's ability to defend itself."
Last May, the Defense Department signed a $375 million contract with the Russian state-controlled arms export firm Rosoboronexport to purchase 21 Mi-17 aircraft. The helicopters, developed by the Soviet Union, are used extensively around the world and Afghan pilots traditionally have been trained on them.
In their letter, the senators say their primary concern is that the Defense Department is purchasing the helicopters "from an organization that has for years been on a U.S. sanctions list for illicit nuclear assistance to Iran and, in the face of the international community's concern, is continuing to enable the Assad regime with the arms it needs to slaughter innocent men, women and children in Syria."
The lawmakers ask the Department to "immediately review all potential options to procure helicopters legally through other means."
But the Defense Department says the contract with Rosoboronexport is the "only legal method" to purchase the military version of the Mi-17 "and to provide ensured cognizance of safety and airworthiness."
According to the Congressional Research Service, Russian arms sales to Syria have more than doubled in the past five years, rising from $2.1 billion in the period 2003 to 2006 to $4.7 billion from 2007 to 2010.
The senators also indicate another reason for their anger over the contract with the Russian company, telling Panetta and Clinton that "it is certainly frustrating that U.S. taxpayer funding is used to buy Russian-made helicopters instead of world-class U.S.-made helicopters for the Afghan military."
But Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, has said in a congressional hearing that buy American-made helicopters would have meant a much higher cost.
"If they had bought an American aircraft, it would have been much more expensive and it would have taken much longer because of the training time of the pilots necessary," Odierno told the Senate Armed Services Committee last Thursday.
As the Obama administration sees it, buying from Russia - even as it continues to arm the Assad regime - may be unavoidable. State Department spokeswoman Nuland says the United States will continue to urge other countries not to provide weapons to Syria.
"But at the same time," she said Tuesday, "we also have a requirement to help the Afghans become increasingly self-sustaining in their ability to lead their security efforts at home."