It’s hard to imagine a more hypocritical position than complaints from Russia about other countries providing weapons to armed groups in Syria. But on August 20, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling arms smuggling to support Syrian rebels “unacceptable,” after the Lebanese navy intercepted a ship containing several caches of small arms and grenade launchers presumably intended for opposition groups.
Last Saturday I appeared on Al Jazeera English’s program “Inside Syria” with a former Russian diplomat, Vyacheslav Matuzov, who had the temerity to blame the United States for providing weapons to armed groups. He said external support for rebels is what is making diplomacy and a peaceful solution impossible.
The hypocrisy and shamelessness of such statements is breathtaking. The war in Syria, from its outset, has been driven by the regime using billions of dollars’ worth of weapons supplied by Moscow. Indeed, Russia has continued to provide weapons to the Syrian government even in the face of numerous atrocities and massacres of civilians.
In early June, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report on these shipments, identifying the Russian firm Rosoboronexport as the primary culprit. It noted that Rosoboronexport is at risk of criminal liability in Syrian government “crimes against humanity.” “The company’s known weapons deals significantly enhance Syria’s military capability at a time when it is engaged in serious crimes, and the arms potentially could be used in its assaults on civilians,” the report says.
On May 26, Reuters reported that a Russian vessel delivered a consignment of heavy weaponry to the Syrian government through the Russian naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. The vessel reportedly turned off its transponder, a violation of international maritime law, as it approached the port in order to make tracking it more difficult. And Syrian and Russian officials refused to disclose the ship’s cargo manifests.
Another Reuters report held that Russia had sold Syria “nearly $1 billion worth of arms including missile systems” in 2011, well into the conflict in that country. The same report said that four cargo vessels had left the Black Sea port of Oktyabrsk, the primary port used by Rosoboronexport for arms shipments, bound for Tartous. The report cites Mahmoud Suleiman Haj Hamad, former chief auditor for Syria’s Defense Ministry, as saying that Russian weapons supplies to the Damascus regime approximately doubled during 2011, as the conflict developed.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that Russia supplied 78 percent of Syria’s weapons imports from 2007 to 2011. More significantly, it confirmed that “During 2011 Russia continued deliveries of Buk-M2E SAM systems and Bastion-P coastal defense missile systems to Syria, as well as securing an order for 36 Yak-130 trainer/combat aircraft.”
In June, Amnesty International cited UK Foreign Office sources saying that Russia had attempted to ship refurbished attack helicopters to the Damascus regime, but had to abandon the mission when the insurance on the vessel carrying the consignment was revoked. Amnesty noted that “Anyone supplying attack helicopters—or maintaining, repairing or upgrading them—for the Syrian government displays a wanton disregard for humanity.”
Given these facts, and the long-standing military and trade relationship between Russia and Syria dating back to the Soviet era, there is no question that the overwhelming bulk of the weaponry used by regime forces in Syria has been of Russian origin. It is estimated that approximately 20,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, most of them unarmed civilians killed by uniformed or un-uniformed regime forces.
There had been growing reports of the reliance by regime forces on heavy weaponry, including large caliber machine guns, tanks, high-explosive mortars, and, increasingly, fighter jets, against rebels and civilian targets. The indiscriminate use of such weapons appears to have reached new heights in the ongoing battle over Aleppo.
No open-minded person can honestly doubt that Russia continues to supply Damascus with a wide range of weaponry, including heavy weapons. The reasons for this are clear: Moscow is determined to do everything can to help the regime of Bashar al-Assad stay in power at all costs. Its interests in Syria, including such lucrative weapons sales, military and other ties to the regime, and its precious warm water port on the Syrian coast—the only remaining Russian military base outside of the former Soviet Union—are well known.
Russian accusations against anyone else for supplying weapons to forces involved in the Syrian conflict therefore constitute the height of effrontery. These accusations are particularly hollow when leveled against the United States, which has restricted itself to non-lethal aid to some opposition groups.
Neither the West nor the Arab world should ignore or forget Russia’s role in promoting the carnage and chaos in Syria. Russia must pay a significant price for its central role in the Syrian government’s unmitigated aggression against its own people.