In 2013, the United States began a secret operation to train and equip opposition forces fighting against the Assad regime in Syria. Through the CIA, the United States facilitated the transfer of an estimated $1 billion in arms, ammunition, and training to Syrian rebel groups in hopes of influencing a negotiated end to the war. But these were not the only weapons flowing throughout Syria — Syrian government stockpiles served as a key source of armaments, and countries from around the region funneled arms into the country to support a variety of actors. In this way, the story of weapons in Syria reads as a cautionary tale about the unintended and lasting consequences of arms transfers, especially to countries in conflict.
The Syrian Civil War represents one of the deadliest ongoing conflicts in the world. All parties to the conflict have leveraged an array of conventional weapons — as well as unconventional weapons, like the chemical weapons predominately used by the Assad regime — to sustain more than five years of conflict. Syria is saturated with weapons, raising concerns about the longer-term consequences of a steady supply of arms amid the country’s ongoing civil war.
Where have all these weapons come from? Prior to the outbreak of war, the Syrian government undertook an effort to modernize its military, investing heavily in sophisticated technologies and increasing its arms imports exponentially over a five-year span. Russia was primarily responsible for filling Syrian government stockpiles, though other countries such as Iran — and to lesser extents Belarus, China, and North Korea — have also historically supplied weapons to the Syrian government. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russia supplied 71 percent of Syria’s imports of major conventional weapons from 2008-2012, and continued to provide weapons to government forces after the war started.
By comparison, armed opposition groups have received weapons from a variety of sources, including foreign governments, illicit arms markets, and Syrian national stockpiles and battlefield captures. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are believed to be among the most active foreign governments involved in financing and providing weapons to opposition forces in Syria, aiming to increase their capabilities and enable them to continue fighting the Assad regime. Other countries such as Croatia, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States and its coalition partners have also played a role in sourcing and transporting weapons to Syrian opposition groups. Additionally, illicit arms transfers from uncontrolled stockpiles in Libya became a key source of weapons to armed groups early on in the Syrian Civil War, with reports that such transfers represented some of the most significant military support available to opposition groups at the start of the war. The main source of weapons for the armed opposition, however, has been the Syrian army itself, as opposition groups have captured weapons from government troops and government stockpiles throughout the conflict.
The array of arms suppliers and availability of weapons in Syria pose a number of longer-term challenges and risks. One such effect of the steady supply of weapons has been to sustain the conflict itself. Arms transfers to all parties fighting in the Syrian Civil War have helped resupply diminished stocks, amplify military capabilities, and contribute to escalatory exchanges throughout the war. Civilians have borne the brunt of this dynamic, with more than half a million people believed to have been killed and millions more displaced as a direct result of the ongoing conflict.
Indeed, conventional weapons have wreaked havoc on civilian lives and livelihoods in Syria. The Syrian government’s indiscriminate use of heavy weapons and artillery, as well as broader use of explosive weapons in populated areas, has led to immeasurable human suffering and will leave a lasting and lethal legacy of explosive weapons for years to come. Moreover, years of aerial bombings and the prolific use of mines and improvised explosive devices have made certain areas of the country uninhabitable and could stymie reconstruction after conflict.
The continuation of the war in Syria has also fueled arms trafficking, with illicit networks operating in the region capitalizing on the chaos and availability of weapons to advance profits. The boost in gray and black-market arms sales can have lasting effects on access to, and availability of, weapons, and contributes to destabilizing proliferation across the region. Indeed, the diversion of arms to illicit markets makes weapons nearly impossible to trace and can improve the arsenals of armed groups, criminal organizations, and terrorist groups. For example, Islamic State fighters acquired advanced weaponry from Syrian opposition groups and Iraqi Security Forces, adding to the threats posed to national, regional, and multilateral forces combatting the terrorist organization.
Finally, as Syria demonstrates, the supply of conventional weapons is difficult to control even at the time of transfer, and the continued availability of these systems can delay and disrupt post-conflict reconstruction efforts and fuel insecurity and instability over the long-term. The legacy of these systems often lives on long after their intended use. Even in secure situations, it is difficult, if not impossible, to ensure how and by whom weapons will be transferred and reused. The risk only increases in fluid or complicated environments such as active armed conflicts where several actors are vying for different ends.
The Syrian Civil War represents one of the most complicated and lethal armed conflicts in the world, compounding risks that weapons provided to any single actor may shift hands. These challenges reinforce the need to conduct thorough risk assessments during the arms transfer decision-making process and prior to delivery, especially when considering transfers to countries in conflict. Such assessments should include deep consideration of the short, medium, and long-term impacts of weapons in the country in question, as well as the surrounding region. In the case of Syria, expediency often outweighed such considerations of longer-term security and humanitarian consequences — an approach that should not be replicated in future arms transfer decisions.
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Shannon Dick is a research analyst at the Stimson Center.