As the atrocities mount in Syria, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has started increasing the pressure on Russia, which, as Syria's biggest weapons supplier, is propping up the regime of dictator Bashar Assad. In a speech in Oslo last week, she said that Russia's refusal to halt this arms trade flies in the face of international efforts to sanction Syria and raises serious concerns in Washington.
It's a principled stance, but it presents a major consistency problem. Even as the administration slams Russian arms exporters for shipping weapons to Syria, the Pentagon is doing a multimillion-dollar business with Russian arms exporters.
The Defense Department contracted a year ago to buy 21 Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport, a state-owned Russian arms dealer that's heavily involved in the Syrian arms trade. The Mi-17 is sort of like the helicopter equivalent of the AK-47, a reliable and comparatively cheap craft that's unusually suited for the harsh environments of the Middle East. The $375-million contract is to supply helicopters for the Afghan military.
To say this sends a mixed message is an understatement; by continuing to buy Russian weapons even as it calls for Russia to stop selling weapons to Syria, Washington demonstrates that there will be no consequences if Russia fails to comply. It signals that the U.S. cares more about its mercantile or strategic interests than the human rights of the Syrian people — just as Moscow clearly does.