A bipartisan group of senators on Monday called on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to end U.S. government ties to Russia’s state arms exporter over its weapons transfers to Syria.
The 17 senators stated in the letter that they have "grave concern" about the Pentagon’s ongoing business ties with Rosoboronexport, the state-run arms exporter.
"Russia remains the top supplier of weapons to Syria, selling reportedly $1 billion or more worth of arms to Syria in 2011 alone," the lawmakers wrote. "Its arms shipments to Syria have continued unabated during the ongoing popular uprising there."
More than 7,500 people have been killed in fighting in Syria, many from indiscriminate artillery shelling of population centers by Syrian government forces fighting opposition rebels.
"We continue to receive grisly accounts that his government forces are summarily executing, imprisoning, and torturing demonstrators and innocent by-standers," the letter said.
Since December at least four cargo ships were tracked from a port used by Rosoboronexport to the Syrian port of Tartus. Another Russian ship reportedly carried ammunition and sniper rifles, docking in Cyprus in January before moving on to Syria.
Russian weapons, including 240mm F-864 high explosive mortars, were found in Homs, Syria, where atrocities against civilians have been committed.
The senators also said that in January, Rosoboronexport signed a new deal with the Syrian government to provide 36 combat jets.
According to current and former U.S. government officials, the Pentagon is in the process of buying 21 dual-use Mi-17 helicopters from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan military.
Though private contractors were ready to procure the helicopters without going through Rosoboronexport, the DOD proceeded with using the Russian exporter after the Russian government complained to the Obama administration that it was not following proper weapon-buying procedures by using outside contractors.
The senators said the Pentagon’s no-bid contract for $375 million for the purchase of aircraft and spare parts is to be completed by 2016. Additional purchases could bring the value of the U.S. procurement to nearly $1 billion.
"While it is certainly frustrating that U.S. taxpayer funding is used to buy Russian-made helicopters instead of world-class U.S.-made helicopters for the Afghan military," the senators wrote, "our specific concern at this time is that the department is procuring these assets from an organization that had for years been on a U.S. sanctions list for illicit nuclear assistance to Iran and in the face of the international community’s concern is continuing to enable the Assad regime with the arms it needs to slaughter innocent men, women, and children in Syria.
"We ask that the DoD immediately review all potential options to procure helicopters legally through other means."
The senators said U.S. taxpayers should not be "indirectly subsidizing the mass murder of Syrian civilians."
The senators said Mr. Panetta should press Russia and its state-run companies to end all support for the Bashar Assad regime and its dealings with Rosoboronexport.
"Continuing this robust business relationship with Rosoboronexport would undermine U.S. policy on Syria and undermine U.S. efforts to stand with the Syrian people," the senators said.
"This is a serious policy problem, and we ask for your personal attention to help solve it," they said.
The letter was organized by Senators John Cornyn (R., Texas), Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.).
Other signers included Senators Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), Benjamin L. Cardin (D., Md.), Robert P. Casey (D., Pa.), Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.), Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), James E. Risch (R., Idaho), Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), David Vitter (R., La.), Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), and Ron Wyden (D., Ore.).