After a winter of bloodshed in which President Bashar al-Assad deployed tanks and rockets to pulverise his own cities, figures released yesterday showed that Damascus splashed out millions of dollars both before and during the anti-government uprising in an effort to develop an enormous arsenal of largely Russian-made weapons.
Arms deliveries skyrocketed by nearly 600 per cent between 2007 and 2011 compared with the preceding five-year period. As the Syrian people laboured under a faltering economy and Baathist repression, Damascus spent hundreds of millions of dollars on missile systems, air defence facilities and anti-ship rockets.
The vast majority – 72 per cent – of the orders came from Russia. Although all of the shipments involved “war grade” weapons of the type not used on protesters over the past year, surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft systems could potentially be deployed to prevent any future military intervention in Syria.
“They are national defence-type weapons,” said Siemon Wezeman from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which compiled the figures. “They would be handy if the Syrian government wanted to keep its airspace free from Arab or other forces.”
Britain and other Western governments have repeatedly talked down the idea of a Libya-style attack on President Assad. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Saud bin Faisal al-Saud, came closer than any other government official to advocating foreign military intervention when he said that arming the opposition would be “an excellent idea”. Yet so far there have been no concrete steps to initiate the kind of action many Syrian activists have been demanding for months.
Russia has faced criticism for its refusal to back Western efforts to secure a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for Syria’s leader to resign, but in a sign that it may be raising the pressure on Assad, the foreign ministry yesterday called on both Damascus and the armed opposition to agree to daily humanitarian truces, backing an initiative from the International Committee of the Red Cross to treat the wounded in the violence-torn country.
Moscow also called for the ICRC to have access to “those detained in Syria for their participation in protests”.
But yesterday’s arms shipment data also highlighted the close relationship between President Assad and Moscow. Given that virtually all of Moscow’s arms sales are processed by the state-owned corporation Rosoboronexport, the Russian treasury has much to gain from a spike in Syrian arms deals.
Last week, Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister insisted his government would not halt weapons sales to Damascus. Despite the US and Europe imposing arms embargoes, Anatoly Antonov insisted that Russia’s deals with Syria were “perfectly legitimate” and would continue.