Russian Helicopters to Syria a New Political Headache for Obama

GOP lawmaker, rights group say U.S. should re-examine deal with firm allegedly supplying Assad.

A Russian-made helicopter Mi-35 manuevers during a trial at an Indonesian Air Force base in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The Pentagon has no plans to suspend or cancel purchases of helicopters for Afghanistan's air force from the same Russian firm that is allegedly sending attack helicopters to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's loyalist military.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that U.S. officials have pressed their Russian counterparts to stop sending the attack helicopters, which human rights activists say aid in "crimes against humanity."

The Pentagon, under a controversial program, for several years has been buying Mi-35 helicopters from Rosoboronexport, a Russian government-run arms manufacturer. Defense officials say they must buy Russian choppers because those are the ones with which Afghan military mechanics and crews are most familiar.

[Gallery: Fighting in Syria Continues.]

A Pentagon spokesman later Tuesday cast the Syrian shipments and Afghanistan transactions as totally separate matters.

Capt. John Kirby told reporters the Rosoboronexport deal is the only "legal" mechanism at the Pentagon's disposal through which it can supply the fledgling Afghan air force with combat helicopters.

Reporters hammered Kirby and Pentagon Press Secretary George Little with questions about the Russian helicopters. The situation has created yet another Syria-based political headache for the Obama administration.

Human Rights Watch, a left-leaning humanitarian rights group, is calling on Pentagon brass to "ensure that all tender agreements ... are not using U.S. tax dollars to purchase arms from Rosoboronexport," the organization said in a statement. "In addition, Secretary Clinton should use international pressure to obtain disclosure of these cargo manifests from the Russian authorities and to impress on them that if Russian weapons continue to be supplied and are being used in the commission of crimes against humanity in Syria, it makes Rosoboronexport and the Russian authorities enablers of these crimes."

Kirby finally acknowledged that if Russia is sending attack helicopters--or other weapons--to Assad, then Moscow is enabling the Syrian president's alleged slaughter of civilians in a civil war that has killed nearly 10,000 people.

What is more, Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, on Monday sent Defense Secretary Leon Panetta a letter expressing his concerns about the situation.

"I remain deeply troubled that the Department of Defense would knowingly do business with a firm that has enabled mass atrocities in Syria," Cornyn wrote. "Such actions by Rosoboronexport warrant the renewal of U.S. sanctions against it, not a billion-dollar contract."

Cornyn says he will use a Senate rule to keep the upper chamber from voting on the administration's nominee to become the Army's chief weapons buyer.

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter.

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