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Syria - Arms Imports

Various foreign countries were essential to the development of the armed forces of the late 1980s. As the former colonial power, France had been the dominant foreign influence during the formative years after Syria's independence. Later, Britain and the United States also aided the military, largely by serving as sources of professional officer training. During the 1958-61 union with Egypt, Egyptian doctrine and training were influential. By 1987, however, the Soviet Union was the predominant foreign influence, as it had been for over two decades. At times, Syrian-Soviet relations have been strained, and Syria has guarded its freedom to make policy independent of the Soviets, particularly with regard to Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. However, Soviet military assistance and the presence of Soviet military advisers continued to be essential to the growth and professionalization of the armed forces. Other East European countries, notably Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Romania, have also provided some materiel and training.

The Soviet-Syrian military relationship began in March 1955, when the Soviets offered to extend considerable economic and military assistance in support of Syria's refusal to join the Baghdad Pact, an alliance that was being formed under the general auspices of Britain and the United States. Initial arms shipments arrived from Czechoslovakia in 1956, but East European aid was small-scale until the rise of Baathist President Nureddin Atassi in 1966. During the June 1967 War, the threat of Soviet intervention on behalf of Syria and Egypt was partly responsible for halting the Israeli advance on both fronts. After the June 1967 War, Soviet military aid to Syria grew substantially and the Soviets established a sizable military presence there.

Assad's rise to power led to a strengthening of political and military ties with the Soviet Union. Contributing to these closer relations was Egypt's sudden ouster of Soviet military advisers in July 1972, which caused an increased Soviet interest in Syria. The months preceding the October 1973 War saw a significant increase in Soviet arms flow to Syria. During the war, Soviet military advisers supervised the operations at SAM sites and were present at Syrian command posts.

The most significant Soviet involvement between October 10- 23, 1973, however, was its airlift of almost 4,000 tons of military equipment and its sealift of considerably more, to rearm the Syrian and Egyptian armies. Within a year after the ceasefire , the Soviets had more than replaced Syria's massive equipment loss.

However, Syria's intervention in the Lebanese Civil War against leftist Muslim forces in 1976 led to a strain in Soviet Syrian relations. For more than a year, the Soviets suspended deliveries of military materiel, while Syria retaliated by reducing its Soviet military presence and halting training for its military in the Soviet Union. To replace Soviet support, Saudi Arabia supplied most of the funds to maintain Syria's troops in Lebanon. By 1987, however, Saudi financial aid was believed to have decreased.

During the Syrian-Soviet rapprochement in 1978, Libya reportedly supplied the equivalent of US$500 million to US$1 billion to pay for Syria's Soviet-supplied weaponry, including 12 MiG-27s. Syria was also able to pay for Soviet weaponry as a result of the October 1978 Arab summit in Baghdad that pledged payments to Syria (as well as to Jordan and the PLO) if it agreed to reject the Camp David accords (signed in Washington in September 1978). Under the agreement, Syria was allotted US$1.8 billion annually. Only a few countries, however, notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, maintained regular payments; consequently, Syria received only US$700 to $800 million per year in Baghdad Agreement aid.

From 1979 to 1983, the Soviet Union delivered US$9.2 billion in arms transfers (out of a total of US$10.53 billion pledged). Czechoslovakia was the next largest supplier, with US$470 million in military aid. China delivered US$90 million, Poland US$30 million, and Romania US$20 million. In addition, Syria received US$200 million in military aid from France, US$180 million from Britain, and US$40 million from West Germany.

In addition to arms, Syria received military advisers and technicians from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and sent military personnel to those countries for training. The number of such advisers and technicians in Syria was estimated at 3,500 in the aftermath of the 1973 War, 2,500 in 1976, 2,000 to 3,000 in 1978, 5,300 in 1984, and 2,300 in 1986. With regard to training, the United States Central Intelligence Agency has estimated that 6,600 Syrian military personnel trained in the Soviet Union between 1955 and 1985 and a further 1,515 trained in other East European countries.

Some observers saw the 1980 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Syria and the Soviet Union as the culmination of the two countries' relationship. From the Syrian perspective, however, this treaty had a deep-seated flaw; there was no reference in it to Syria's position in Lebanon. Syria wanted and had requested a "strategic agreement" with the Soviet Union to offset any United States-Israeli agreement. Yet no such SovietSyrian agreement was signed and no broader alliance evolved, although the Soviet Union increased its military assistance following Syria's 1982 defeat in Lebanon. While maintaining its sovereignty, Syria expressed appreciation for Soviet assistance by granting the Soviets facilities to base reconnaissance aircraft and expanding the ports of Latakia and Tartus to accommodate large Soviet ships.

In 1983 and 1984, the Soviet Union increased involvement by installing SAM-5, SAM-6, SAM-9, and SS-21 missile systems in Syria. These SAM systems, which had adequate range to cover a major part of the region, were at first manned and protected by Soviet advisers and troops and have only gradually been turned over to Syrian control. The large Soviet resupply of SAM systems was interpreted by the United States, Israel, and Jordan as a Soviet response to the massive destruction of Soviet-built SAMs in the Lebanese War, among other reasons. Syria acquired additional T-72 tanks following Assad's October 1984 visit to Moscow.

In 1983 Syria's rejection of the Camp David accords, its alleged support for international terrorism, and its close friendship with the Soviet Union led the United States Congress to prohibit any new aid; since 1979, no new American aid has been assigned to Syria. Meanwhile, despite, or perhaps because of, the dominant Soviet influence on the armed forces, Assad has repeatedly sought to diversify Syria's source of armaments, for instance, by negotiations with France. However, Syrian-French arms deals broke down over the issue of Syrian support for anti-French terrorist groups. In general, Syrian efforts to purchase Western defense technology have been unsuccessful.

In the 1990s Damascus sought to acquire Russian SA-10 and SA-11 air defense systems, MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters, and T-80 or T-90 main battle tanks, as well as upgrades for the aircraft, armored weapons, or air defense systems already in its inventory. But its inability to fund large purchases and its outstanding debt to Russia curbed substantial upgrades and acquisitions.

Russia-Syria military cooperation was put on the back burner in the early 1990s over debts for Soviet supplies. With contacts resumed in 1996, the Syrian army took delivery of Russian Kornet-E and Metis-M anti-tank rocket systems, RPG-29 grenade launchers, Bastion, Sheksna, and Refleks guided tank rockets, and small arms. In 2004-2005, the two countries signed contracts for Strelets ground-to-air missile systems with Igla-S missiles, and about 50 Pantsyr-S1 ground-to-air missile gun systems to a value of $730 million.

Russian-Syrian military ties have often come under the barrage of criticism from Tel Aviv and Washington. Sensational reports reemerge every now and then about Russia allegedly supplying Syria with modern jets (fighter jets of the Su-30 family or missile defense interceptors MiG-31E) as well as with S-300PMU-2 Favorit surface-to-air missile systems. Moscow has terminated some bilateral contracts in response, so as to avoid further tensions. One example is the contract for the Iskander E tactical missile system, which was cancelled in 2005. The Iskander missile had been promised to Damascus in 2001, and only a personal request by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to former President Vladimir Putin put a stop to its sale to Syria.

Media reported in 2007 that Damascus had agreed to sell some of the Pantsyr short-range air defense missile-gun systems it is buying from Russia to Tehran. Russia did not approve the alleged sale of its Pantsyr-S1 mobile air defense system from Syria to Iran, a first deputy prime minister said 23 May 2007. "We have received no requests from Syria for supplies to Iran, not a single bullet," Sergei Ivanov said at a news conference in Moscow. "Russia engages in military-technical cooperation with all states that strictly abide by international law... For any arms that Russia sells to its foreign partners, contracts are signed only after the receipt of a certificate from the end user. These weapons cannot then be re-exported and supplied to third countries without the permission of the seller, in this case the Russian Federation."

Syria, a major importer of Russian weapons, has bought Pantsir S1E and Buk-M2E air-defense systems from Russia, and hopes to receive Iskander tactical missile systems, and two Amur-1650 class diesel submarines. Syria has shown interest in buying a whole range of advanced Russian air defense systems. Syria and some other countries are interested in long-range S-300 Favorit systems, medium-range Buk and short-range Tor. Syrian experts want to make sure that these systems are indeed modern, powerful and effective weapons.

Three Russian-Syrian arms supply contracts have been officially confirmed so far, worth a total $2.5 billion, according to the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Under those deals, Russia has committed itself to furnishing 24 new fighters MiG-29M/M2 and Buk-M2E air defense missile launchers, as well as to upgrading Syria's 1,000 T-27M tanks to the T-72M1M model.

There are other Russian-Syrian contracts. One is for the supply of a Bastion coastal defense missile system. This deal has been a source of controversy since 2007. The Bastion is a modern weapon system equipped with supersonic Yakhont anti-ship missiles. Its non-export version, known as Onix, will soon become the basis for the anti-vessel armaments of the Russian Navy's surface ships and nuclear submarines.

Syria is the other major customer for Russia’s military industry. Recent contracts that had not been completed by mid-2011 included:

  1. purchase of 8 battalions of Buk-M2E [SA-11] missile systems ($1 billion)
  2. modernization of S-125 Pechora-2 SAMs to the Pechora-2M level
  3. purchase of 36 Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile systems (part of 2006 contract, 30 delivered in 2008-10)
  4. purchase of 2 K-300 Bastian coastal defense systems
  5. purchase of 9M123 Chrystanthemum self-propelled anti-tank missile systems (status uncertain)
  6. modernization of 200 T-72 tanks to T-72M1M level (part of $500 million contract to modernize 1000 tanks, 800 already completed)
  7. modernization of 24 MiG-29s to SMT level
  8. purchase of 2 MiG-31M interceptors, second-hand from Russian air force

In August 2011 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Russia to stop supplying arms to Syria. "We want to see Russia cease selling arms to the Assad regime," she said in a recent interview with the television network CBS. The export of Russian weapons to Iran and Libya has already been suspended, and now officials in Washington are raising the issue of Russia's arms sales to Syria. This is an extremely sensitive issue, even for such an inherently sensitive sector as military and technical cooperation. The business interests of Russian arms manufacturers and the Russian leadership's complex Middle East policy run up against the hard line of Israel and the United States.

The Government of the Russian Federation remains the top supplier of weapons to the Government of Syria, reportedly providing nearly $1,000,000,000 worth of arms to the Government of Syria in 2011 alone. On October 4, 2011, the Russian Federation, together with the People's Republic of China, vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have condemned ``grave and systematic human rights violations'' in Syria and would have warned the Government of Syria of the actions, including sanctions, to be considered against it, if warranted.

A Russian-owned ship reportedly carrying weapons to Syria docked in Tartus despite assurances it would change destination, Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News reported 12 January 2012. “The Turkish navy has learned that the Russian ship MV Chariot docked at the Syrian port today,” the paper said, citing Turkish Foreign Ministry official Selcuk Unal. The cargo ship MV Chariot, flying the St. Vincent and Grenadines flag, was en route from St. Petersburg to the Syrian port of Latakia carrying from 35 to 60 tons of ammunition and explosives meant for the Syrian Defense Ministry.

On January 18, 2012, Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergei Lavrov criticized "the sending of so-called humanitarian convoys to Syria". On January 19, 2012, Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that, with regard to the Government of Syria, "For us, the red line is fairly clearly drawn. We will not support any sanctions." On February 4, 2012, the Russian Federation, together with the People's Republic of China, vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an end to the violence in Syria, demanding that all parties in Syria cease all violence and reprisals and implement the plan set out by the League of Arab States, expressing grave concern for the deteriorating situation in Syria, and condemning the widespread gross violations of human rights.

On March 13, 2012, Deputy Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation Anatoly Antonov stated that the Government of the Russian Federation would not halt arms shipments to Syria, acknowledging that the Government of the Russian Federation has military instructors on the ground training the Syrian Arab Army and stating, "Russia enjoys good and strong military technical co-operation with Syria, and we see no reason to reconsider it. Russian-Syria military co-operation is perfectly legitimate."

On May 30, 2012, Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations Susan Rice condemned recent reports of an arms shipment that arrived in Syria from the Russian Federation on May 26, 2012, as "reprehensible," stating that "this is obviously of the utmost concern given that the Syrian government continues to use deadly forces against civilians." On May 31, 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the policy of the Government of the Russian Federation toward the Government of Syria "is going to help contribute to a civil war," maintaining that Russian officials "are just vociferous in their claim that they are providing a stabilizing influence," and stating, "I reject that. I think they are, in effect, propping up the regime at a time when we should be working on a political transition."

On 12 June 2012, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at a joint discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres, said that she had continued to confront Russia about arms shipments to Syria and that Russian assertions that the shipments were unrelated to the internal situation in Syria were "patently untrue." Secretary Clinton also commented on reports that Russia had shipped additional attack helicopters to Syria, where the government had begun to use such aircraft against rebel forces.

On 19 June 2012, a ship heading from Russia to Syria, the MV Alaed, had its insurance withdrawn by The Standard Club in London while off Scotland's coast. The ship subsequently was not legally able to sail until new cover could be obtained. The insurance was withdrawn after reports surfaced that the ship was carrying arms, including attack helicopters and missiles, leading The Standard Club to request additional information about the cargo. The insurance was withdrawn because of internal rules within The Standard Club and not because of an order from the UK government, which had previously requested that Russia stop all arms shipments to Syria in the wake of the continuing crisis there. The ship subsequently made to return to Russia. The exact ownership of the vessel was also unclear, being part of the Russian company FEMCO's fleet, but registered to Volcano Shipping in Curacao in the Dutch Antilles, and therefore sailing under that flag. FEMCO claimed that commercial management and chartering of the MV Alaed was carried out by United Nordic Shipping, a Danish company headquartered in Copenhagen. United Nordic Shipping denied this, saying that the proposed agreement had never been finalized. The complicated ownership and management structure of the ship highlighted difficulties in enforcing sanctions with regards to maritime shipping.

On 21 June 2012, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted that the ship had been carrying attack helicopters, but that they were property of the Syrian government and had been sent to Russia to be overhauled under a contract signed in 2008. At that time, the MV Alaed was expected to arrive at the Port of Murmansk by 23 June 2012, where it would be reregistered in Russia and receive new insurance, at which point it would no longer be subject to the EU arms embargo against Syria.

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