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June 20, 2012

U.S. in no position to condemn alleged Russian
transfer of helicopter gunships to Syrian regime

By Stephen Zunes

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has claimed that "there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria,” though the Russian government denies the accusation. If true, it would be highly disturbing, given the Syrian regime’s widespread use of such weapons against unarmed civilians.  Amnesty International and other human rights groups have called for an immediate end of arms transfers to the Syrian regime, particularly of weapons that have been used to target civilians.

However, the United States is hardly in a position to criticize arms transfers to governments which use them to attack innocent civilians, particularly helicopter gunships.

Thousands of Salvadoran civilians are believed to have been killed by U.S.-supplied helicopter gunships during the 1980s. Obama named Robert Gates, one the key architects of the Reagan administration’s Central American policy during that period, as Secretary of Defense.

The administration of Clinton’s husband provided helicopter gunships to the Turkish government despite their widespread use again civilians in Kurdish areas of the country. U.S. arms were responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in that country during the 1990s and over 3000 villages were burned.  

Similarly, both the Clinton and Bush administration provided helicopter gunships to the Colombian military, despite their use against civilian targets.

Amnesty International called on the United States to cease such arms transfers to both Turkey and Colombia, but both the Clinton and Bush administrations rejected the plea.

In early October of 2000, immediately following the killing of a dozen Palestinian civilians by U.S.-supplied helicopter gunships killed a dozen Palestinians—including attacks on apartment complexes in Netzarim—the Clinton administration announced a new shipment of advanced Apache attack helicopters. The Pentagon acknowledged that, "U.S. weapons sales do not carry a stipulation that the weapons can’t be used against civilians. We cannot second-guess an Israeli commander who calls in helicopter gunships." Amnesty International called for a cessation of all attack helicopter transfers to Israel, but Clinton administration rejected this call as well.

Similarly, the widespread use of helicopter gunships by Israeli forces against civilian targets in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009 led Amnesty to again call for an end to the U.S. providing such materiel to the Israeli government, but the incoming Obama administration—like the Bush, Clinton and Reagan administrations before it—rejected the call to consider human rights in the transfers of such deadly technologies.

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has tried to justify such transfers on the grounds that these governments were faced with armed insurgencies, including groups which had engaged in acts of terrorism. This is the exact same rationalization currently being used by the Syrian regime and its apologists. Yes, there is indeed an armed insurgency underway, and some elements are indeed terrorists, but that still does not give a government the right to target civilians. This is true regardless of the offending governments’ relations with the United States.

The very idea that the Obama administration even cares the slightest about civilians killed by helicopter gunships is debunked by the incident involving the release of audio and video footage of U.S. helicopter pilots in Iraq killing two unarmed Reuters journalists and several would-be rescuers. Not only did the Obama administration refuse to indict the pilots responsible, they chose to prosecute the private who exposed the illegal killings for “aiding the enemy.”

It appears, then, that the Obama administration’s opposition to the alleged Russian arms sale is not out of any concern for civilians, but out of a desire to weaken the Syrian government’s ability to combat rebel fighters armed by such U.S. allies as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Hypocrisy aside, it is still imperative for anyone concerned about human rights to categorically oppose Russian military assistance to Syria, such as helicopter gunships, which could be used against civilians, as it is imperative to oppose arms shipments by any country to governments which would likely target innocent civilians. 

Unfortunately, the United States is in no position to preach to the Russians about the sanctity of arms.

Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist and senior analyst, is a  professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the  University of San Francisco. He is the author, along with Jacob Mundy,  of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010).