Politics of Poverty

Missing from Geneva II talks: The illicit arms fueling Syria’s conflict

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Hussein Ammar, 27, from Qusayr, Syria, is reunited with his mother in July after two months of separation. Hussein was one of thousands of Qusayr residents who fled their homes after a three-week long siege by the Syrian government army and Hezbollah. Approximately 300 died on their way to safety. Two of Hussein's brothers were killed. Photo: Sam Tarling / Oxfam

Global leaders must address how foreign weapons are coming into Syria.

Martin Butcher is Oxfam’s policy advisor on arms and conflict.

A conflict that began almost four years ago in the political turmoil of the Arab Spring has morphed into a multi-sided war, fuelled by guns, bombs, and ammunition from far beyond Syria’s borders.

While the international community has been prepared to offer aid for refugees and internally displaced people, efforts to end the bloodshed and resolve Syria’s crisis have been halting at best. At last with leaders from the Syrian government, opposition groups, and the foreign ministers of around 30 countries meeting to convene the Geneva II conference, there is a glimmer of hope that a political process might be possible, even if many very significant difficulties remain for Syria.

The simple fact is that without continuing supplies of arms—particularly bullets and larger munitions like artillery shells, explosives, rockets and bombs—none of the parties to the conflict would be in a position to continue the war.

However, vital questions are still not on the agenda in Switzerland: How are the combatants getting their arms and ammunition? And can such supplies be stopped as part of any peace deal?

Just days before peace talks on the conflict were due to begin, reports that Russia has stepped up its supply of military support to the Syrian government were alarming. Many armed groups have received illicit arms and ammunition shipments from outside the country as well. The Al Qaeda-linked ISIS allegedly brought many of its arms from Iraq, where it also continues to fight. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia and Iran are the main arms suppliers to the Syrian government. SIPRI and many other researchers have identified Qatar and Saudi Arabia as the principle arms suppliers of opposition forces in Syria. Many arms have been smuggled into Syria from Lebanon and Turkey.

While there is a small amount of ammunition and explosives production inside Syria and the government had huge stockpiles built up before the war, the war could not continue at the same pace without the incoming flows of foreign weapons, ammunition and explosives. Even a reduction in ammunition supplies would reduce the intensity of the conflict and lessen the terrible violations Syrians face, giving more room for talks to succeed. If the warring parties have a lower capacity to fight, they will have a greater incentive to talk, and a weakened ability to indiscriminately target civilians.

Beginning with Aleppo, local ceasefires have been endorsed by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and proposed in Switzerland by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moallem. Under the right conditions, local ceasefires can provide the opportunity to ensure that civilians can access aid, create confidence-building measures, and set up a more conducive environment for negotiations between warring parties. The circumstances of recent ceasefires have garnered some criticism, but so far there has been little international involvement in the brokering or monitoring of deals to ensure all sides are upholding local ceasefire agreements.

In the longer term, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), adopted at the United Nations in April 2013 by overwhelming vote, will make a significant difference to conflicts like that in Syria. When the Treaty enters in to force, States parties will be obliged to measure requests for arms against criteria based in international humanitarian law and human rights law. Where there is a risk of prolonging or aggravating a conflict, or of serious abuses of human rights, States will have to refuse supplies. The ATT will also play a role in preventing any State from building up excessive stocks of weapons in future, reducing all States’ capacity to wage war as has happened in Syria.

The people of Syria are suffering immensely. They need the international community to control the guns, bullets and bombs that are causing so much death, destruction and displacement; they need an end to the supply of illicit arms to bring peace to their country.


A prior version of this post originally appeared on Syria Deeply, an independent digital media project led by journalists and technologists that explores a new model of storytelling around this global crisis. 

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