Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has had no better friend than Vladimir Putin's Russia. Just this week, three Russian ships reportedly headed to reinforce the Syrian port of Tartus. Meanwhile, the head of Russia's arms control export company ominously declared that the Syrian regime had been supplied with an advanced-missile defense system -- "whoever is planning an attack should think about this," he said.
Amid these developments, the news that Barack Obama and Putin agreed at the G-20 summit this week to support a political solution to the Syria conflict would seem almost, well, laughable -- if the situation on the ground weren't so dire.
As the death toll rises -- the United Nations says more than 10,000 Syrians have lost their lives -- the United States and Russia remain on opposite sides of the conflict. The Obama administration has declared that Assad must step down, while the Kremlin has staunchly supported the Syrian regime -- vetoing two U.N. Security Council resolutions addressing the conflict and warning darkly about thousands of "foreign terrorists" fomenting violence in the country.
The New York Times reported on Thursday, June 21, that CIA agents are steering arms to the Syrian opposition, but this covert action pales in comparison to Russia -- which brazenly continues to supply the Syrian regime with advanced weapons that bolster the state and its violent crackdown.
The Syrian-Russian arms trade goes back more than a half-century, to at least the 1950s. At the time, the Soviet Union found a willing Cold War ally in its struggle against the United States and Israel -- when President Hafez al-Assad's regime was threatened by an Islamist-led insurgency in the 1980s, the Kremlin supplied the weaponry and trainers to put down the threat. From 1950 to 1990, the two countries' arms trade totaled at least $34 billion.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union did nothing to dent Russia's strategic alliance with Syria. Under Putin's stewardship, Russian weapons exports to the Assad regime have only increased. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Syria's arms imports increased five-fold between 2007 and 2012 -- and Moscow was the source of at least 78 percent of these weapons.
But what exactly have they supplied Assad's forces with?
We know that the Syrians have Russian bullets, shells, tanks, and attack helicopters. Numbers, of course, are hard to come by -- much of the counting relies not on an inspection of the arsenals or public records, but in glimpses of the weapons as they are used on the Syrian people. YouTube videos filmed by Syrian activists or defected soldiers have proven vital for this task.
Here's the best attempt, using reliable data, at a list of Russian weapons in Syria:
Attack helicopters: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently accused Moscow of shipping attack helicopters to Damascus; Russian officials shot back that they were merely returning helicopters that had been subject to previously scheduled repairs. The first reports of Syrian helicopters firing S-5 air-to-surface rockets emerged in February, and new videos suggest that the Syrian Army has recently employed such weapons in the northern Idlib and Aleppo governorates.
Mortars and shells: Much of the Syrian army's assault has been conducted through the shelling of urban areas, a strategy particularly liable to result in civilian casualties. The U.S. embassy in Damascus has released satellite images of Syrian artillery and tanks surrounding restive towns and cities in the country.
One of the weapons that has been used to devastating effect around the city of Homs is the Russian-made 240mm mortar, the world's heaviest mortar round. This behemoth can fire a shell containing 280 pounds of high explosives at a target over six miles away -- it was designed to destroy enemy fortifications, but can also devastate a civilian building in one shot. Here, a video still appears to show Syrian forces firing a 240mm mortar near the city of Homs.
David Kenner is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on June 21st, 2012.