Arab World: Feigning concern? (JERUSALEM POST) By JONATHAN SPYER 06/17/12)
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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week expressed concerns
regarding new Russian supplies of helicopter gunships to the Assad
regime in Syria.
Washington has confronted Russia on its continued shipments to Assad,
Clinton did not go into detail regarding the nature and form of this
alleged confrontation with Russia.
But her evident surprise regarding Russian export of advanced attack
helicopters to Syria is strange.
The Syrian Air Force’s fleet of attack helicopters has long been
composed in the main of Russian-made Mi-25 Hinds. The fact that
Russian arms firms are continuing to supply these to Syria does not
represent a change or escalation in Russian policy, but rather a
continuation of it.
Nor is it news that the Syrian regime employs helicopter gunships in
its civil war against the rebels of the Free Syrian Army and against
the civilian populations that support them. Evidence for this has
long been available in the public sphere.
Syrian oppositionist Ammar Abdul- Hamid and the Christian Science
Monitor newspaper, for example, first detailed the use of attack
helicopters against civilian protesters in Syria on June 15, 2011.
A report issued in early May by Human Rights Watch went into detail
concerning the use of these weapons in what it described as the
Syrian Army’s “war crimes” in Idlib Province in northern Syria in
March and April.
The US continues, meanwhile, to maintain and develop lucrative
contracts with Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms firm that is playing
the central role in supplying the Assad regime with the means to
continue its repression.
Rosoboronexport is not a private concern.
Its website describes it as a “state corporation.”
Established by presidential decree in 2000, it is the successor to
the state arms exporters of the old USSR.
Since 2007, it has been designated as the sole state intermediary
agency responsible for Russian export and import of arms.
According to shipping data, at least four major arms shipments have
left the port of Oktyabrsk in southern Ukraine, which is used by
Rosoboronexport for transporting arms for Syria since December 2011.
An additional ship, the MV Chariot, left St. Petersburg in January
2012. The ship, reportedly carrying ammunition supplied by
Rosoboronexport, stopped at Limassol in Cyprus before continuing on
to its destination – the Russian naval base at Tartous, Syria.
This probably represents only a part of the true provision of Russian
arms to the beleaguered dictator.
The US, which officially calls for the downfall of the Assad
dictatorship, is nevertheless currently committed to a $375 million
deal with Rosoboronexport for the purchase of 21 Mi-17 helicopters
intended for the use of the Afghan Air force This is only part of a
contract worth just under $1 billion that Rosoboronexport signed with
the US Department of Defense on May 26, 2011. The most recent
transaction between the DoD and Rosoboronexport is dated November 3,
The US could unilaterally withdraw from this contract if it chose to
This is what a bipartisan group of 17 senators, led by Republican
John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois, is
calling for. In a letter sent to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on
March 12, 2012, the senators demanded the cancellation of the
Pentagon Under-Secretary for Policy James Miller rejected the
senators’ arguments in a written response in which he argued that the
Mi-17 acquisition was “critical” in “building the capacity of the
Afghan security forces.”
Afghan pilots are trained on Russian systems. It is cheaper and
easier to purchase Russian helicopters than to spend time and money
re-training personnel for a shift to Western equipment.
Rosoboronexport is happy to supply the equipment needed for the
The honeymoon between Rosoboronexport and the Department of Defense
is of relatively recent vintage.
The company was the subject of US sanctions up until 2010 for
its “illicit aid” to the Iranian nuclear program.
The sanctions were lifted following Russian support in that year for
a UN resolution expressing concern at Iran’s nuclear drive.
Rosoboronexport still sells weapons to Iran.
The US is not the only country to combine calls for the downfall of
Assad with close commercial relations with his main armorer.
Efforts to persuade France to cancel Rosoboronexport’s presence at an
international arms fair in Paris this month failed. This is despite
newly minted French President François Hollande’s expressions of
theoretical support for possible military action against Syria.
France evidently sees no contradiction in criticizing the dictator
while embracing his armorer, either.
On the ground in Syria, there are indications of a recent significant
improvement in the performance of rebel forces and in the quality of
the weaponry reaching them. This indicates the probable accuracy of
reports suggesting that the Saudis and Qataris, perhaps with some US
direction, are now engaged in arming the rebels in earnest.
Yet this semi-clandestine effort is dwarfed by the visible and
tireless supply of Russian weaponry to the government side in the
Syrian civil war. The agencies undertaking this effort, above all
Rosoboronexport, are continuing to enjoy profitable relations with
key Western countries.
It’s business as usual accompanied by statements of concern is the US
administration’s stance toward Assad’s main armorer.
For as long as this goes on, the US secretary of state is likely to
continue to be shocked and concerned at the equipment available to
the Assad regime.
Observers of Western policy, meanwhile, will be no less shocked and
concerned at the helplessness of the current US and broader Western
response to the crisis in Syria. (© 1995-2011, The Jerusalem Post
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