Bipartisan group of lawmakers condemns Russia's arms sales to Syria

June 18, 2012
The Hill
Vicki Needham

A bipartisan group of seven senators introduced a resolution condemning Moscow for aiding Syrian President Bashar Assad's government as the country faces civil war. 

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) put forward a resolution on Thursday calling on the Russian government to stop sales of weapons to Syria, which they say are being used to kill civilians and rebels. 

"For years Russia has been arming Assad, and the United States can no longer turn a blind eye as they prop up his despicable regime and enable its murderous reign over the Syrian people," Cornyn said.  

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this week that Russia is sending attack helicopters to Syria, but the State Department walked back the remarks saying that the helicopters were refurbished and were being returned to Syria. 

Still, a State Department spokeswoman said there is concern that the helicopters will be used by Assad's government to kill civilians and attack opposition forces. 

Russian officials have, in turn, strongly denied the accusations, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying Moscow is fulfilling its contractual obligations, which were made with Syria well before any violence broke out. 

“While Russia's refusal to condemn the Syrian government's slaughter of their citizens is troubling, their sale of arms to the Syrian military is downright disturbing,” Risch said. “The U.S. Senate needs to be on the record in condemning this activity, and the administration must actively work to end the flow of arms to the Syrian regime.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the House and Senate are considering granting Moscow permanent normal trade relations as they join the World Trade Organization this summer. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol increasingly want to attach human rights legislation to the bill allowing for normal trade ties between the United States and Russia. 

But most agree that any legislation on Syria probably can't be attached to the trade bill. 

Moscow is expected to vote July 4 to join the WTO, meaning Congress must act before leaving Washington for the August recess to get the full benefits. 

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, are ramping up their efforts to get the bill passed in time. 

On Wednesday, in another sign of increased tensions, Cornyn announced that he is blocking the confirmation of the Army’s new acquisition chief over the Pentagon’s relationship with a Russian defense firm that is supplying weapons and support to Syria and Iran.

In March, Durbin, Cornyn, Ayotte and Gillibrand were among a bipartisan group of 17 senators who sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urging the U.S. government to stop buying helicopters for the Afghan military from Rosoboronexport, a Russian firm they said also exports weapons to Syria.

In the past several years, the firm has been hit with U.S. sanctions for assisting Iran, Durbin has said. 

"This resolution calls on the Russian Government to stop the sale of weapons to Syria, end its support for Assad’s brutal regime and join the rest of the world in finding an end to the violence in Syria,” Durbin said of the most recent effort.

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