In addition to today’s Senate resolution, Sen. Cornyn has established himself as the Senate’s leading voice against the U.S. Department of Defense contract with Rosoboronexport, Syria’s top weapons supplier. He has called both for an end to U.S. business relationships with Rosoboronexport and sanctions to be reinstituted against the company. The senator has also asked for a full audit of the Pentagon’s contract with the Russian arms broker and has also placed a hold on the pending nomination of Heidi Shyu to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology until there are some satisfactory answers to these fundamental policy questions.
Sen. Cornyn’s frustrations had fed into an ever growing chorus of congressional and administration figure criticizing Russia’s role in ongoing Syrian atrocities. Also, last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that a planned Russian shipment of helicopters to Syria could “quite dramatically” escalate ongoing violence against Syrian civilians. Secretary Clinton’s remarks came just a few short weeks after a reported weapons shipment from Russia to Tartus sparked international outrage.
Russian-made attack helicopters have been identified by citizen reporters as a new tactic used recently in attacks by the Syrian regime on civilians in the areas of Idlib, Rastan and Latakia. While many of the attack helicopter models currently used by the Syrian regime may have been imported a long time ago, it is important to note – as Secretary Clinton did – that any new shipments of such equipment to Syria is very worrying given the Assad regime’s possible use of the weapons against civilians.
In the last few months, reports of the Syrian regime using helicopter gunships have steadily increased. In March 2012, footage emerged identifying that a Mi8/Mi-17 helicopter using a side mounted machine gun was reportedly used to attack rebels near Azaz. Earlier this month, on June 6, similar reports indicated that helicopter gunships were used in regime attacks in Latakia and then again on June 10 in Rastan and June 11 in Farkia. In the most recent two attacks, footage has emerged showing the Syrian regime forces using Mil Mi-24 Hind-D gunship to target civilians.
Despite verbal assurances from Russian authorities that none of the weapons sold to Syria can be used in a civilian conflict, the senators signing this resolution and administration officials, including Secretary Clinton, are correct to be concerned and to denounce any such shipments. Given that the Syrian regime is using war grade heavy weapons like mortars, tanks and now attack helicopters to kill its own people, the world has no choice but to assume these types of unthinkable attacks will continue and possibly escalate. That is less likely to happen without arms, however.
With that in mind, Secretary Clinton should immediately work to obtain the disclosure of cargo manifests for Russian arms shipments to Syria over the past 16 months. This information is one of the few ways to actually set the record straight about whether Russia is in fact providing the Syrian regime with weapons that are being or can be used to target civilians.
It makes sound policy sense that in the absence of proof that Russian weapons are not and will not be used by the Assad regime to commit human rights abuses, the Obama Administration should immediately distance itself from this atrocity enabler by designating the Russian arms dealer Rosoboronexport for sanctions. This would mean that the company would have to discontinue its business relationship with U.S. government and U.S. entities until it is found not to be enabling atrocities in Syria. This measure also protects American taxpayers by ensuring their money is not indirectly subsidizing the crimes against humanity is Syria – a practice that evidence suggests is ongoing.
Senate resolution S. Res. 494 and Secretary Clinton’s recent remarks are spot on. But their words will mean little if the casualty toll continues to mount because Russian arms continue to flow into Syria.
Hameed is the director of Human Rights First’s Crimes Against Humanity Program.