A group of U.S. House lawmakers is continuing to push the Pentagon to halt its buys of Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters until Russia stops selling weapons to the Syrian government.
The Defense Department purchases the helicopters from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-run arms export agency, for the Afghan Security Forces. Pentagon officials have defended the buys, saying the Mi-17s are cheaper and easier to operate for the fledgling force.
In a July 2 letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, lawmakers from both political parties say the helicopter purchases need to stop until Russia discontinues its weapon sales to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who’s accused of violently suppressing civil unrest in his country.
“We firmly believe that the Department of Defense should not engage in contracts with companies arming the Assad regime in Syria and enabling his mass atrocities against his own people,” the lawmakers write.
The letter was signed by Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.; Kay Granger, R-Texas.; Keith Ellison, D-Minn.; Jack Kingston, R-Ga.; Jim Moran, D-Va.; Martha Roby, R-Ala.; Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.; Walter Jones, R-N.C; James McGovern, D-Mass.; and Frank Wolf, R-Va.
The United States loses it credibility when criticizing Russian arms sales to Syria when the U.S. government continues to buy military helicopters from Rosoboronexport, they write.
Disagreeing with the Pentagon’s claims that Mi-17 helicopters are the best solution for the Afghans, the lawmakers urge the Pentagon to hold an open competition, in which American-made aircraft can compete.
The House-passed version of the defense authorization bill includes an amendment, sponsored by DeLauro, Granger and Ellison, which would ban DoD from buying helicopters for Afghanistan from any firm “controlled, directed, or influenced by” a country that provides weapons to Syria.
Speaking to the Russian press at the Farnborough International Air Show outside of London, Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, the deputy head of the Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation, said Russia would not sign any new weapon contracts with Syria until the situation there “stabilizes,” according to news reports.
However, Russia will continue to fulfill orders that have already been signed, Dzirkaln said.
He also disputed claims that Russia has been selling military aircraft to the Assad regime.
The U.N. estimates more than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.