By Carlo Munoz - 06/13/12 04:37 PM EDT
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) is blocking the confirmation of a key Army official over the Pentagon's relationship with a Russian defense firm supplying weapons and support to Syria and Iran.
An aide to Cornyn said the senator is blocking Heidi Shyu’s nomination to become the Army’s new acquisition chief because he is concerned about a contract the Pentagon has with state-sponsored Russian arms dealer Rosoboronexport.
The Pentagon for the past few months has been purchasing Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters for Afghan forces from Rosoboronexport.
But the firm has also been providing arms and heavy weaponry to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Those weapons have been used to devastating effect in Assad's brutal ongoing campaign against anti-government forces in the country.
A U.S. intelligence report sent to Congress on Monday showed Rosoboronexport was also supplying Tehran with critical components to support its current long-range missile development program.
Cornyn on Monday demanded in a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the Pentagon end its multimillion-dollar helicopter contract with the Russian firm. He said the firm's business dealings with the Pentagon were undermining American and international efforts to depose Assad from power.
“I remain deeply troubled that the DoD would knowingly do business with a firm that has enabled mass atrocities in Syria. Such actions by Rosoboronexport warrant the renewal of U.S. sanctions against it, not a billion-dollar DoD contract," Cornyn wrote.
Pentagon press secretary George Little attempted to defend the department's ties with the Russian defense firm on Tuesday.
“We're not buying helicopters for the Syrian regime. We're buying helicopters in support of the Afghan Air Force,” Little told reporters at the Pentagon, adding the Rosoboronexport deal was the only “legally available method” to get the helicopters to Afghan forces.
“The Mi-17 helicopter, from our vantage point, is about Afghanistan. It's about equipping the Afghan air force with what they need to ensure that they have the capabilities from an air standpoint to defend themselves,” Little said.
However, DOD spokesman Capt. John Kirby acknowledged that Russian-made arms being sold to Syria by the firm were partly responsible for keeping the Assad regime in power.
“To the degree that the Syrian armed forces use that [Russian] resupply to kill their own people, then yes,” Kirby said during the same Pentagon briefing on Tuesday.
Bloomberg first reported details of Cornyn's office holding up Shyu's confirmation by the Senate.