Bloodbath in Syria: Wherefrom the Weapons?
The war in Syria has killed over 250,000 people and injured more than one million since 2011. Over 53% of civilian deaths are caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Those fighting on all sides of the conflict use mortars, rockets, and bombs in towns, cities, and villages, which kills civilians, destroys infrastructure, and generates the refugee crisis we see today. More than 11.6 million people are in urgent need of clean water and nearly ten million do not have enough to eat. Nearly 12 million people are refugees or internally displaced.
Syria is awash with weapons. Ranging from small arms to anti-aircraft rockets to air-dropped bombs, the bloodbath is fueled by the easy availability of weapons looted from caches in Iraq; transferred directly to specific parties by other countries; or diverted from those transfers to unintended recipients.
This is must be an issue of key concern at the peace talks that are supposed to begin soon in Geneva. One of the largest impediments to peace in Syria is the continuing transfer of weapons to all sides of the conflict. This issue demands critical attention at this round of talks—if profits continue to be made from the war through the sale of weapons, ammunition, and other military equipment, the war will continue.
It is difficult to trace when some weapons being used in the conflict were transferred and from which country. It is even more difficult, in some cases, to identity specific models of some weapon systems and thus the producer of those weapons. However, WILPF’s Disarmament programme, Reaching Critical Will, has undertaken to track some of these weapons from their use in Syria back to their manufacturers. We do so in order to highlight the companies that are contributing to the ongoing conflict, whether the weapons being used are new or old, whether they were transferred decades ago or recently.
Most of the Syrian military’s weapons originally came from the Soviet Union or the former Yugoslavia. Now the government mostly receives weapons from Russia and Iran. It uses the state budget to fund its arms imports – thus the government is using the tax money of the very people it is targeting to finance the weapons it uses against them.
Dozens of companies in Russia have produced the weapons being used by the Syrian military today. Almaz-Antey Air Defense Concern produces the Buk medium-range land-based missile system and S-200 long-range surface-to-air missiles. Bazalt produces RPG-29 rocket-propelled grenades. The Degtyarev plant produces 9M119 Svir anti-tank guided missiles, 9M133 Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, KPV heavy machine guns, and Kord-12.7mm heavy machine guns. JSC Defense systems, a Russian-Belarusian company, produces S-125 Neva/Pechora surface-to-air missile systems and S-300PMU air defence systems.
The Defense Industries Organisation (DIO) of Iran has provided the Syrian army with M40 recoilless rifles, which are anti-tank guns. Many seem to have also ended up in the hands of opposition groups. The DIO also provided the Syrian army with AM50 anti-materiel rifles. These were originally exported to Iran from the Austrian company Steyr-Mannlicher in 2006. Iran then cloned the rifles and shipped them to the Syrian army. The DIO also produces and supplies the armour-piercing incendiary bullets fired by the rifles. Meanwhile, the Aerospace Industries Organisation of Iran has provided the Syrian military with Toophan anti-tank missiles, which is a reverse-engineered copy of the US military BGM-71 TOW missile.
Transfers to the Syrian opposition often follow a more circuitous route to their recipients. For example, several opposition groups including Al-Asala Watanmya, Daraa Revolution Commission, Durou al-Thawra, and Kataib al-Qasas use FN-6 shoulder-fired missiles. These are produced by the China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation. Qatar purchased these weapons from an unknown seller, which some investigators believe to be the Sudanese government. Qatar then transferred the FN-6s, via Turkey, to opposition groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
These are not the only weapons thought to have come from China via Sudan. The Sudanese government is also thought to have sold Chinese-made anti-materiel sniper rifles and anti-tank missiles to Syrian opposition groups. In addition, Sudanese-made 7.62×39-millimeter ammunition has been used by Soquor al-Sham, a group that recognises the Syrian National Coalition’s military command.
Some of the Syrian opposition’s weapons seem to have come from Croatian stockpiles. In 2012, Saudi Arabia is thought to have financed the purchase of thousands of rifles and hundreds of machine guns, rocket and grenade launchers, and ammunition for opposition fighters from a Croatian-controlled stockpile of former Yugoslav weapons.
Some weapons also seem to have come directly from the United States. In April 2014, Syrian opposition groups supported by the West said they received about a dozen BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles, which were produced by the Hughes Aircraft Company (now part of General Motors). Other weapons used by the Syrian opposition groups are Russian or US-made and seem to have been looted from various caches or retransferred from other countries. Russian company KB Mashinostroyeniya makes many of the man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) used by various opposition groups. Several groups also use the MILAN anti-tank missile system produced by Euromissile in France.
Meanwhile, Islamic State (IS), according to a comprehensive report from Amnesty International, uses weapons designed or manufactured by more than 25 countries. The bulk of these arms and ammunition were seized from Iraqi military stocks. IS has also gained access to weapons from other sources, in particular from the capture or sale of Syrian military stocks and arms supplied to armed opposition groups in Syria by countries including Turkey, the Gulf states, and the United States. IS fighters are now equipped with large stocks of mainly AK variant rifles, but also US military issue M16, Chinese CQ, German Heckler & Koch G3 and Belgian FN Herstal FAL type rifles. In addition, IS has captured more sophisticated equipment, such as guided anti-tank missiles (Russian Kornet and Metis systems, Chinese HJ-8, and European MILAN and HOT missiles), and surface-to-air missiles (Chinese FN-6s).
Arms transfers and peace talks
The arming of all sides to this conflict reflects and perpetuates the ongoing militaristic approach to conflict and international relations. The range and quantity of weapons available to those taking up arms to kill in Syria is a product of decades of arms transfers to the region and failures by the US-led occupation of Iraq to manage arms deliveries and stockpiles. These weapons represent billions of dollars spent on technologies of war over decades rather than on peacebuilding, development, and human rights.
The peace talks must take a different approach. They must confront the ongoing transfer of weapons to all parties in the conflict, using the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty as a basis for action. They must also involve the effective participation of parties who have not taken up arms against each other. Nonviolent actors, including women’s groups, have so far been largely excluded from Syria peace process efforts. This approach must change in order to facilitate a new, nonviolent, effective, community-driven, and sustainable peace process.