Governments and companies around the world should stop signing new contracts with arms suppliers such as the Russian firm Rosoboronexport that are providing weapons to the Syrian government. In light of compelling evidence that the Syrian army is responsible for crimes against humanity against Syria's people, the Russian state-owned arms trading company's continued dealings with Syria place the company at risk of complicity in these crimes, Human Rights Watch warned in a letter to the company made public today.
Under international law, providing weapons to Syria while crimes against humanity are being committed may translate into assisting in the commission of those crimes. Any arms supplier could bear potential criminal liability as an accessory to those crimes and could face prosecution, Human Rights Watch said. Rosoboronexport is widely reported to be Syria's main weapons supplier, but all other suppliers of arms to Syria should be subject to the same scrutiny, Human Rights Watch said.
“Rosoboronexport's clients should distance themselves from the company until it stops selling arms to Syria,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The bottom line is that no one should do new business with any company that may be an accomplice to crimes against humanity.”
Some of the recent and planned Rosoboronexport weapons supplies raise serious concerns, given Syria's year-long use of the military against Syrian cities and towns, Human Rights Watch said. 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. For example, combat aircraft could be used in assaults on civilian areas.
Third parties in the weapons trade, particularly other buyers of weapons and those involved in promotional activities for the industry, should distance themselves from Syria's main arms supplier, Human Rights Watch said. They should avoid any new business contracts with Rosoboronexport until it verifiably ceases providing weapons to Syria.
Companies and governments should also consider suspending any current dealings with the company until they conduct a full review of its role in providing support and assistance to the Syrian army's ongoing attacks, and its risk of complicity. They should evaluate any commercial contracts with Rosoboronexport such as weapons deals, the company's planned appearances in arms trade shows, and its advertising in industry publications.
The same applies to any other supplier of weapons and related materiel or other forms of military or security assistance to the Syrian government in the current context, Human Rights Watch said. Any such firm – whether public or private – should immediately suspend its dealings with Syria, and if it doesn't, its clients should consider ending business dealings with the company, subject to a thorough review of the arms supplier's role as a potential accomplice to crimes against humanity.
Human Rights Watch has previously called for an arms embargo on the Syrian government. In the United States, 17 senators led by John Cornyn of Texas, together with US civic groups, called for the US government to withdraw from contracts worth nearly $1 billion with Rosoboronexport.
The US Defense Department has refused to reconsider a planned $375 million purchase of 21 helicopters from the company for Afghanistan. In a letter to Cornyn, US Undersecretary for Policy James Miller said the deal was “critical” to US interests in Afghanistan even though he is aware “that Rosoboronexport continues to supply weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime” and “there is evidence that some of these arms are being used by Syrian forces against Syria's civilian population.” The US government has called on Russia and other countries to cease arms deliveries to Syria.
“Taking a ‘business as usual' approach with Rosoboronexport shouldn't be an option,” Roth said. “The US needs to reconsider both the planned helicopter purchase from Rosoboronexport and the option of additional purchases that are allowed within this contract.”
Rosoboronexport has declined to renounce publicly its ties to the Syrian government. Although in recent weeks the company has refused to comment on the matter, it previously has been outspoken in defense of its supplies to Syria and said they will continue as long as there are no sanctions in place or orders from the Russian authorities to halt deliveries.
“We understand the situation has become aggravated in Syria,” a Rosoboronexport spokesman, Vyacheslav Davidenko, told the New York Times in February. “But since there are no international decisions, and there are no sanctions from the UN Security Council, and there are no other decisions, our cooperation with Syria – the military-technical cooperation – remains quite active and dynamic.” His comment echoed earlier statements by the head of the company, Anatoly Isaikin.
Detailed information linking particular weapons transfers and how the equipment is used inside the country is extremely difficult to obtain, Human Rights Watch said. Moreover, the Syrian army is known to use a considerable amount of older Russian equipment, some dating to the Soviet era.
“The Security Council should impose a mandatory international arms embargo on Syria, and Russia and China should not block it,” Roth said. “With the Syrian government committing crimes against humanity, other governments and companies around the world should use whatever leverage they have to stop further arms supplies that could contribute to these crimes.”
Rosoboronexport did not respond to the questions in Human Rights Watch's letter, sent on April 6, 2012, eventually replying in mid-May that the matters raised were outside of the company's competence. It referred the questions to the Russian Foreign Ministry, to which Human Rights Watch had also sent the letter and which did not respond.
An April 18 news report that Russian officials had decided to cease sending supplies of light weapons to Syria has not been confirmed. As recently as May 14, Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov defended Russian weapons supplies to Syria's government, reiterating Moscow's position that, “We do not supply any offensive weapons, we are talking only about defensive weapons,” without providing details. On June 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin echoed that view, saying, “Russia is not shipping weapons that could be used in a civil conflict.”
On May 24, Al Arabiya reported that a shipment of Russian arms was due to arrive in Syria in the next few days. When asked about that shipment, Rosoboronexport's spokesman said he did not have information on the ship in question and noted that Rosoboronexport's “policy is not to comment on individual shipments, regarding contents or timing.” The Russian foreign ministry told Reuters that it did not have information on a ship carrying weapons to Syria but declined to comment further.
Reuters reported that the ship docked at the Syrian port of Tartus on May 26 and unloaded a cargo of heavy weapons, citing a Western diplomat.
Public information sources indicate that Rosoboronexport is Syria's main weapons supplier. Since 2007, Rosoboronexport has had a virtual monopoly on arms exports from Russia. During that period, Syria's arms imports increased more than five-fold compared with the previous five-year period, according to research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Russia provided 78 percent of Syria's imports of major conventional weapons from 2007 to 2011, SIPRI found.
Recent Russian supplies have included surface-to-air missiles and missile systems, as well as air and coastal defense systems, according to SIPRI, while pending deliveries as of early 2012 included more than 50 combat aircraft.
SIPRI, which is considered an authoritative source on the trade in heavy weapons, has identified numerous transfers from Russia to Syria:
In addition, Jane's Defense Weekly in 2010 cited a deal for Russia to supply armored vehicles to Syria. The Moscow-based arms research organization Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) has reported that from 2007 to 2011, Russia completed a contract to upgrade 1,000 T-72 battle tanks. A media report indicates that Russia also has arms contracts with Syria worth $250-$400 million for delivery of ammunition, pistols, sub-machine guns, machine guns, anti-tank missiles, and rocket-propelled grenades.
According to shipping records collected by ThomsonReuters, at least four cargo ships have left Russia's Black Sea port of Oktyabrsk – which Reuters said is used by Rosoboronexport for weapons shipments – for the Syrian port of Tartus since December 2011. In addition, a Russian-operated vessel, the MV Chariot, was carrying four containers of “dangerous cargo” from St. Petersburg to Syria when it stopped in Cyprus in January 2012. Although the ship ostensibly changed course for Turkey, it nevertheless traveled to Syria, according to Reuters, which described the cargo as ammunition reportedly supplied by Rosoboronexport. Davidenko, the company spokesman, declined to confirm or deny the report, telling Reuters, “We do not comment on where our deliveries go, when they leave port or how.”
Rosoboronexport's main clients are India, China, Algeria, Venezuela, and Vietnam, according to a RIA Novosti news agency report citing the company's chief, Anatoly Isaikin. Speaking separately, Isaikin reported that the company exported Russian weaponry worth $10.7 billion in 2011. He added that 43 percent of Russia's arms exports go to Asia-Pacific countries, 24 percent to the Middle East and North Africa, 14 percent to Latin America, 10 percent to CIS countries, 7 percent to sub-Saharan Africa, and 3 percent to Europe and North America.
SIPRI data show that more than 50 countries have imported heavy weapons from Russia since 2007, when the company took control over Russia's arms exports. The European countries importing weaponry from Russia during that period were Croatia, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Turkey. Buyers of Russian weapons in North Africa and the Middle East included Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates. In Latin America, recent purchases of Russian arms were made by Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru. Recipients in Africa have included Senegal, South Sudan, and Uganda, while Asian recipients have included Burma, Indonesia, and Thailand.
The company regularly participates in major arms shows throughout the world. From May 8 to 10, for example, it had a presence at SOFEX-2012 in Jordan. According to Rosoboronexport's website, it will also participate in numerous upcoming expositions including: Eurosatory-2012 in Paris, June 11 to 15; MBCB-2012 in Moscow at the end of June; Farnborough International Airshow in the United Kingdom, July 9 to 15; AAD-2012 in South Africa, September 19 to 23; EuroNaval-2012 in Paris, October 22 to 26; Defensys-2012 in Greece, October 27 to 30; Interpolitex-2012 in Moscow, October 23 to 26; Indo Defense 2012 in Indonesia, November 7 to 10; Airshow China in China, November 13 to18; and EXPONAVAL-2012 in Chile, December 4 to 7.
News media reports from recent weeks citing company officials indicate that Rosoboronexport has pending deals or ongoing negotiations with Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia.
Rosoboronexport also arranges arms licensed production or coproduction deals for the manufacture of weapons. The countries where it has or is seeking to build weapons production ties include Spain.
In addition to Russia, SIPRI has also identified recent weapons transfers to Syria from Belarus (combat aircraft) and Iran (anti-ship missiles and coastal defense systems). In a March 21 UN Security Council briefing, Western diplomats accused Iran of illicitly supplying weapons to Syria, citing information collected about alleged violations of UN sanctions on Iran that prohibit it from exporting arms, and expressed concern that the weapons were being used against the civilian population.
A 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service identifies China as a supplier of weapons to Syria, indicating that it delivered $300 million in arms from 2007 to 2010, up from $200 million from 2003 to 2006, as compared with Russian deliveries of $400 million from 2003 to 2006 and $1.2 billion from 2007 to2010.
That study, “Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2003-2010,” also noted that Syria's position as a top global recipient of conventional weapons rose from 10th-highest from 2003 to 2006, with $2.9 billion in total agreements over that four-year period to the 7th-largest in 2010, when it signed deals worth $1 billion.
Syria has also imported considerable quantities of weapons from Egypt. Turkey exported to Syria over 13,000 pistols from 2007 through 2010, according to its voluntary report on small arms to the UN Conventional Arms Register, which did not specify if the weapons were for the Syrian armed forces.
On March 13, Human Rights Watch documented multiple accounts by witnesses that appear to confirm that the Syrian army has planted landmines, including the Soviet/Russian-made PMN-2 antipersonnel mines and TMN-46 antivehicle mines, near the country's borders with Lebanon and Turkey during the current conflict.
In March, five witnesses, including three foreign correspondents, gave separate accounts to Human Rights Watch that in Idlib government forces had used large-caliber machine-guns, tanks, and mortars to fire indiscriminately at buildings and people in the street.
On February 24, Human Rights Watch documented the Syrian government's use in Homs of the Russian-made 240mm F-864 high explosive mortar system, which fires the world's largest high explosive mortar bomb known to be in production and use. The 240mm round weighs 130 kilograms and contains 31.93 kilograms of TNT as an explosive charge.
Also in February in Homs, Human Rights Watch documented the government's use of explosive weapons including 122mm howitzers and 120mm mortars. Variants of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, which are produced in various countries, are prevalent.