The Cable

House votes to cut off Pentagon deals with Russian arms exporter

The House of Representatives voted 407-5 Thursday to bar the Pentagon from spending any money on deals with Rosoboronexport, the main Russian arms broker that is also providing weapons to the Syrian regime.

The vote came in the context of the debate over the fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill. Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) offered an amendment to the bill that says the Defense Department may not "enter into a contract, memorandum of understanding, or cooperative agreement with, make a grant to, or provide a loan or loan guarantee to Rosoboronexport."

"It is beyond unacceptable for the United States government to work with a firm that is arming the oppressive Syrian regime," Moran told The Cable. "The United States does not condone the massacre of innocent men, women and children. Furthering contracts with Rosoboronexport contradicts our nation's commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy."

Congressional outrage over the Pentagon's dealings with Rosoboronexport have been building since March, when 17 senators wrote to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to demand an end to U.S. arms deals with the Russian firm.

Russia has supplied more than $1 billion of arms to the Syrian government since the unrest is Syria began, the senators wrote -- including four cargo ships full of weapons that have arrived in Syria since December. Rosoboronexport is Russia's official broker, serving as a middle man for all Russian foreign defense sales. It reportedly signed a new contract with the Syrian regime for 36 combat jets in January.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army is in the middle of buying 21 Mi-17 dual-use helicopters from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan security forces. That $375 million deal was granted to the Russian arms broker through a sole-source contract that was never competitively bid, according to Wired. The administration has said Rosoboronexport was the only broker for the helipcopters, which the Afghan military needs.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who has been leading the congressional fight against Rosoboronexport, tried to add two related amendments to the Russian trade bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee July 18. One would have expanded the Magnitsky Act, a related piece of human rights legislation, to include those involved in transferring weapons to the Syrian government. Cornyn withdrew that amendment at the request of the committee leadership.

A second Cornyn amendment would have delayed the implementation of the U.S. granting Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations status until the administration could certify that Russia had ceased providing the Syrian regime with lethal weapons. That amendment failed by an 8-16 vote.

On Friday, Syrian-American groups in Washington praised the House for moving to end the Pentagon's business with Rosoboronexport.

"The American-Syrian Council has been working hard to emphasize in Congress how important it is that the United States government send a signal to Russia that continued military support for the Assad regime is a red line" said Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a member of the council. "We will work to secure the necessary votes in the Senate and move quickly to have this DoD contract with Rosoboronexport terminated as quickly as possible."

The Cable

State Dept: Syrian refugee crisis spinning out of control

Syrian refugees are pouring into neighboring countries at an alarming and increasing rate, outpacing the international community's ability to assist them, according to State Department and USAID officials.

"The violence is increasing ... and this increase in violence is, of course, leading to more people, and a larger number of people, that are inside Syria and that are along Syria's borders needing more humanitarian assistance," said Maria Otero, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy, and human rights.

Otero just returned from Turkey and Jordan, where she met with government officials, nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, human rights activists, and youth groups. She traveled there with Kelly Clements, the deputy assistant secretary of State for the bureau of population, refugees, and migration;

Clements said that as of Thursday, between 117,000 and 125,000 refugees had fled Syria to seek refuge in neighboring countries and thousands more were pouring over the borders each day. 8,500 Syrians crossed the border into Lebanon in the last 24 hours, she said.

As of Thursday, there were about 42,600 refugees in the camps along the Turkish border, she said. In Jordan, there are 37,000 refugees, of which about 35,000 have been registered with UNHCR. In Lebanon, there are 32,500; in Iraq about 8,000.

"There are obviously many more Syrians that have crossed that border but have not availed themselves of the need for international assistance," said Clements, adding that in Lebanon, "those numbers are rising very, very rapidly."

There are also 1.5 million Syrians inside Syria need of urgent assistance, including 300,000 to 500,000 internally displaced persons, but aid workers are struggling to reach them.

"Inside Syria, lack of access due to violence by all parties remains the number one limiting factor for humanitarian assistance. International humanitarian agencies simply are unable to reach those most in need," Clements said.

Aid workers are also being harassed and captured, even killed.

"We know it's been widespread, and we know from organizations that we're working with that medical clinics, health professionals have been targeted. We also know people simply trying to get aid in to help people have been targeted, said Mark Bartolini, director of the office of U.S. foreign disaster assistance. 

At the Syria Humanitarian Forum last week in Geneva, the U.S. announced another $6 million in assistance to international organizations dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, bringing the total U.S. commitment in 2012 to $64 million, Clements said.