The Cable

Congress moves to bar Pentagon from deals with Russian arms exporter

The Senate voted unanimously Thursday night to bar the Pentagon from using U.S. taxpayer funds to purchase any goods from the Russia's main arms exporter, including helicopters for use in Afghanistan.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) submitted an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act barring the Pentagon from spending any money in fiscal 2013 on contracts with Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-controlled arms export firm that has been facilitating arms shipments to the Syrian regime since the brutal crackdown on Syrian civilians began early last year.

"The American taxpayer should not be indirectly subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians, especially when there are perfectly good alternatives for purchasing these same arms through U.S. brokers," Cornyn said in a statement. "Continuing this robust business relationship with Rosoboronexport would continue to undermine U.S. policy on Syria and U.S. efforts to stand with the Syrian people."

Outrage over the Pentagon's dealings with Rosoboronexport has been building on Capitol Hill 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 through a sole-source contract that was never competitively bid, according to Wired. The administration has said Rosoboronexport was the only broker for the helicopters, which it says the Afghan military needs.

The firm is also bidding to sell ammunition to U.S. forces. The U.S. government had halted arms deals with Rosoboronexport from 2006 to 2010 due to concerns the company was contributing to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction due to its arms sales to Iran. Those sanctions were lifted in 2010 when Russia backed United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iran.

In July, Democratic Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) successfully added similar language barring Pentagon contracts with Rosoboronexport to the House's version of the fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill. That amendment was adopted by a vote of 407-5.

The Senate is expected to pass the defense authorization bill Friday, after which it must be reconciled with the House version before being sent to the president's des.

"Senator Cornyn has demonstrated tremendous leadership in targeting the enablers of Syria's atrocities. We are thrilled that his work on this issue over the last year - from bringing attention to the troublesome U.S.-Rosoboronexport relationship to building a bipartisan coalition - has culminated in the passage of this amendment in the Senate," said Human Rights First's Winny Chen. "We look forward to working with other human rights champions in Congress to end U.S. business relationships with enablers of Syria's mass atrocities."

The Cable

Clinton: “We will do more” to help the Syrian opposition

The United States is moving toward more robust help for the Syrian opposition but has not yet decided to recognize the Syrian opposition or provide arms to any Syrian rebel groups, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but the tide is turning in the rebels' favor.

"It appears as though the opposition is now capable of holding ground and that they are better equipped and more able to bring the fight to the government forces," Clinton said at a conference Thursday sponsored jointly by the Foreign Policy Group and the State Department's Office of Policy Planning. "I don't know if you can say that the entire country is at a tipping point, but it certainly seems that the regime will be harder pressed in the coming months."

Clinton denied a report Thursday by the Associated Press stating that the administration is already planning to recognize the new Syrian opposition council that the State Department was instrumental in helping establish. She also declined to confirm a New York Times report Thursday that the administration is considering providing direct arms to some members of the Syrian opposition.

"We're constantly evaluating, we're constantly taking action, and I'm sure we will do more in the weeks ahead," she said. "No other decisions have been made yet, but we consider them on almost a daily basis."

"We're going to carefully consider what more we can do," Clinton said, promising an announcement of future U.S. moves at the next "Friends of Syria" meeting in Morocco in December.

Clinton did say that the Syrian opposition is moving toward a more unified, cohesive position on what the future of a post-Assad Syrian would look like. She also said that the United States is hoping to that the government and civic structures inside Syria could be preserved if and when the Assad regime falls.

"We're doing what we can to support the opposition and also support those inside Syria within the local councils who are committed to the kind of continuity in Syrian governmental institutions so we don't see a collapse and of disbandment of institutional forces that we know from our Iraq experience can be extremely dangerous," she said.