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The (Not-So-Small) Arms Trade

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

Written by: Gerardus Yosari

NATO-made arms cache in Syria. Source: Press-TV


With the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) diminishing, the reason for the United States of America (U.S.) and Russia to be in Syria remains unclear. ISIS was the common enemy of both countries and hence, begs every reason for both countries to be present. The common understanding, especially, among western media channels was that the Syrian Crisis dates back only to the Bush Administration, where George W. Bush Jr declared the ‘War on Terror’. However, recent studies had shown otherwise. The hostility of the U.S. towards Syria goes as far back as the 1980s, under the Carter Administration. During that time, Washington was searching for a ‘change of regime’ in Damascus. Washington held a coordinated study with its European and Arab monarchy partners to identify possible alternatives to the then, Syrian government led by Hafez al Assad. To oppose the Syrian forces, Washington backed by its allies, Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein, and Jordan, used the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized Syrian opposition group, to organize an insurrection in Syria in 1982 by initiating sectarian attacks. [1] The infographic below shows the extent of the U.S. and Russian presence in Syria and the arms trade going on between both countries and Syria.

“Syria: Arming Assad’s Regime Against Its Own People”, Source: Human Rights First

The US and Its Quagmire

The U.S. had always wanted to create a “New Middle East” in their own image. The Carter Administration’s actions were only the first phase. The second phase came after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. The underlying purpose of the second phase was to create conflict through community divisions, particularly in Iraq, characterized as ‘Arabs versus Persians’ (Iranians). Once Iraq was destabilized and Saddam’s regime overthrown, Syria was next in line in Washington’s vision to create the “New Middle East”. During the Bush Administration, there were high level diplomatic contacts with the Syrian Government amidst a series of sanctions on the country between 2003 and 2008 possibly, due to its involvement in Lebanon and Iraq. At the time, U.S. economic foreign policy on Syria seemed incoherent because the U.S. blocked Syria’s attempt to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) but demanded liberalization of its economy. The consensus in Washington was that the Syrian government regime must go. Therefore, together with Britain, they coordinated the rebel-led insurrection in Syria. This was possibly why the U.S. vetoed Syria’s accession into WTO. It was an isolation program that they devised to reduce any chances of Syria getting help from the international community. The U.S. has always been skilled in fighting a war without actually being there. They have had a long history of dirty, covert wars fought through proxies in Central America (e.g. El Salvador and Nicaragua), in Africa (e.g. Zaire and Angola) and in the Middle East (e.g. Afghanistan) [1]. The political motive of the U.S. in Syria is actually a façade for the underlying economic reason of why they are there; arms trading encompasses most of why the U.S. is there economically. The U.S. accounts for 41.5 percent of all global arms agreement in 2007, making it the world’s most dominant arms exporter. The ‘war on terror’ declared by George W. Bush Jr. increased the sales of U.S. arms to its allies and propelled the global market forward [2]. To move towards making the vision of the “New Middle East” a reality, the U.S.

supported the anti-Assad rebels who fought to overthrow the Syrian government. Their support includes tactical weapons and air support through unmanned drones. The tensions in the Middle East, Syria in particular, fuelled new arms spending. Rising oil prices also made buying arms much cheaper for oil producing countries like Syria [2]. The issue with the United Nations protocol for international arms trade is that conventional weapons that are not nuclear, chemical or biological in nature cannot be banned totally because they have legitimate uses like, for the country’s self-defense. Hence, countries like the U.S. who are involved in arms trading can use this ‘loophole’ to their advantage and benefit economically [2].

For Mother Russia

In the case of Russia, its involvement in Syria was, also, largely attributed to an economic potential through arms trade. The country’s military and political engagement in Syria, besides benefiting from economic gain, was also used as a leverage to display its political might; based on statements by Russian officials, 60 weapons have been tested for combat in Syria. The idea of getting these weapons combat ready was to be able to better market them to potential buyers and to act as a ‘proof of concept’ to them [3]. One of the weapons that has grown in interest and has been, subsequently bought by countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the S-400 Air Defence Missile System. The figure below shows the map of MENA and the countries who have expressed their interest in the S-400 Air Defence Missile System.

Figure 1: Sales of S-400 Air Defence Missile System in MENA. Data from the Middle East Strategic Perspectives, “Growing Demand for Russian arms in the Middle East: The Syria Effect?”

Russia is second only to the United States as the world’s top arms exporter. After Asia, the MENA region has become increasingly important in the Kremlin’s arms market, with almost “nearly a fifth of their arms exports going to the MENA region from 2000 to 2016” [4]. In the whole scheme of things, arms trade is used to create a “multipolar world” by curbing Western

domination of any particular region, in the context of a zero-sum anti-western policy. These methods are being employed in order to restore Russia’s image as a “Great Power”, sought after by Russian President Vladimir Putin. But why buy from the Russians when the Americans probably sell better quality arms? Russian arms may not be as technologically advanced as the American’s, but they provide them at lower costs with lesser questions asked [4]. Nations on a tight budget would buy from Russia knowing that they can obtain similar weapon systems that are almost on par with the U.S. at a discounted price. Moscow also takes lesser time to deliver the arms after the contract is signed as compared to the cumbersome bureaucracy of the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system. Most local military personnel in the MENA region are used to training using Russian weaponry to the point that switching to a similar U.S. counterpart would prove uncomfortable, another reason for buying Russian arms. Besides that, it has less strings attached. Countries who buy from Russia can re-sell weapons in the secondary market which the U.S. prohibits in their arms trading [4]. In the context of the Syrian crisis, Damascus is not only one of Russia’s biggest arms client but also Moscow’s closest ally. The bilateral relationship between both countries must not be underestimated. After Putin’s meeting with President Bashar al-Assad in January 2005, as much as $13.4 billion of Syria’s debt was written off. In return for that, Syria must permit Russia to establish a permanent naval presence in Tartus and Latakia. The infographic below shows the extent of Russian weapons moving towards the ports of Tartus and Latakia in Syria where the Russian navy is present.

“Shipping arms to Syria through the Black Sea”. Source: Washington Post

Russian arms sales to Syria reached $4.7 billion in a span of just four years, from 2007 to 2010. Early October 2015 was vital to Russia’s position in Syria. Moscow fired 26 cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea Flotilla to strike what they claimed to be “Islamic State Targets” across Iran and Iraq. Besides clearing the supposed targets, the marketing of their arms was clear. They were “battle ready” and any countries looking for strong naval capabilities wouldn’t have to drain their war chests to acquire high quality ordnance [4]. The Russian military is using the Syrian crisis as a ‘training ground’ to test war strategies and also develop military experience. Currently, Russia faces a potential Islamist insurgency in its North Caucasus republics which is predominantly Muslim. In Tatarstan, there are signs of Islamic militants and because of its close proximity to Moscow (500 miles east of Moscow), it would be foolish not to consider its threat [6]. Therefore, by backing the Assad regime and the Syrian army, the potential for eliminating them for good is high [5]. While, Arms trade is a reason for Russia’s continued presence in Syria, the prestige and the prevention of an Islamist insurgency, as mentioned before, add to its continued presence in Syria. Being a nationalist, Putin wants to re-establish Russia into a great power in world politics and one great way to show its political might is in its presence in Syria. [6]. Although ISIS has become less of a threat, the Russian vision of becoming the world’s great power in the world’s political arena remains. The infographic below shows Russia’s sales of arms in the MENA region.

“Russia in the Middle East”. Source: BICOM

Another Giant Mess?

The United States’ plans to create a “New Middle East” through Syria failed because Assad’s government has not been overthrown by the U.S. backed anti-Assad rebels. This can be attributed to Obama’s reluctance to become too overly involved in the Syrian war. His reluctance has allowed Assad to extend his reign in Syria. Now with the new administration, President Trump decided to end the American program to fund these “anti-Assad rebels” and furthermore, decided that Syria was no longer his priority [7]. Russia also adds that the U.S. should leave the Geneva agreements of 2012 because the agreements clearly mention that ‘It is for the Syrian people to determine the future of the country’ and that Washington’s actions violate these agreements [1]. The statement from Russia is probably just a soft diplomatic cover for their main intention of remaining in Syria to ensure the continuance of its arms trade. By getting the U.S. out of Syria, Russia will be able to fully reap the economic benefits from the trade. For now, the U.S. is moving their focus away, while Russia continues to make its presence known in Syria. The future is definitely still uncertain as to how this conflict will end.


[1] Anderson.T, (2016). The Dirty War on Syria: Washington, Regime Change and Resistance: Global Research Publishers, Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG), Quebec.

[2] Stohl,R, (2009). Putting the Arms Trade Treaty into Context: Perspectives on the Global Arms Trade, Existing Arms Trade Initiatives, and the role of the United States: Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law), (103), 333-306.

[3] Growing demand for Russian arms in the Middle East: The Syria Effect? [online] Available at: middle-east-the-syria-effect/ [Accessed 6 Nov. 2018].

[4] Borshchevskaya. A (2017). The Tactical Side of Russia’s Arms Sales to the Middle East. [online] Available at: east/ [Accessed 6 Nov. 2018].

[5] Jones, I.R. (2017). Why does Russia support Syria and President Assad? [online] Available at: president-assad [Accessed 6 Nov. 2018]

[6] Menon, R. (2013). What’s Russia Doing in Syria and Why. [online] Available at: [Accessed on 6 Nov. 2018]

[7] Sanger. D.E. (2017). Trump Ends Covert Aid to Syrian Rebels Trying to Topply Assad. [online] Available at: arming-syrian-rebels.html [Accessed 6 Nov.2018]

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