WASHINGTON, March 4 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – US officials are renewing criticism of Russia over the delivery of weapons to Syria, with US Secretary of State John Kerry openly chastising Russia Monday for the shipments and lawmakers calling on the Pentagon to halt business with Russian state-owned arms dealer Rosoboronexport.
“The bad actors, regrettably, have no shortage of their ability to get weapons from Iran, from Hezbollah, from Russia, unfortunately, and that’s happening,” Kerry told a news conference in Saudi Arabia after meeting with that country’s foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal.
The sale of Russian weapons to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been a source of bilateral tension between Moscow and Washington, with US officials accusing Russia of arming a regime the United States says is killing its own citizens in Syria’s raging civil war.
Russia, however, has insisted that the deliveries are legal under international law and that it is not supplying Syria with offensive weapons. Moscow has also questioned the composition and goals of the various armed groups fighting the Assad regime.
Kerry’s comments came on the heels of a letter from US Sens. John Cornyn and James Inhofe urging new US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel abide strictly by a statute prohibiting the Pentagon from doing business with Rosoboronexport, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Human Rights First.
The lawmakers wrote to Hagel last week to express their “opposition to any continuation” of the Pentagon’s “business relationship with Rosoboronexport,” saying that such dealings would constitute a “direct subversion of existing law by the Department of Defense,” Human Rights First said in a statement.
Neither lawmaker’s office provided a copy of the letter upon request Monday, though a spokesman for Cornyn said he was aware of the correspondence.
The US Army has ordered hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of transport helicopters from Rosoboronexport, but US lawmakers inserted a ban into the 2013 US military budget prohibiting the Pentagon from engaging in business with the arms suppliers.
The budget, however, allows the Pentagon chief to use a “national security waiver” in order to do business with the state-owned firm.
A Pentagon spokeswoman told RIA Novosti that she could not immediately confirm whether Hagel had received the letter and whether Hagel would consider halting the Defense Department’s contracts with Rosoboronexport.
At their inaugural meeting last week, Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, spent the bulk of their time together discussing Syria, State Department officials said. And US President Barack Obama placed a call to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday to discuss the deadly civil war as well.
“The two presidents agreed on the need to advance a political transition to end the violence [in Syria] as soon as possible and the importance of Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov continuing their engagement on Syria,” the White House said in a statement.
Washington has consistently maintained that it does not intend to arm the Syrian rebels, though it says that some of its allies in Europe and the Middle East have chosen provide weapons to the opposition forces.
Former Pentagon official Michael Rubin, a resident scholar specializing in Middle East issues at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, described the White House’s Syria policy “more geared to rhetoric than action” and said Obama’s national security team is unlikely to take a hard line with Moscow on the issue.
Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told RIA Novosti on Monday that he has seen no evidence that Moscow might cave to the West’s pressure and cease delivering arms to the Assad regime.
“It’s not beyond the pale to imagine that Moscow could want to make a positive gesture toward the Obama administration,” Kuchins said, “but I think they’d have to make the judgment that to do this, Assad really is done.”