Half of worldwide arms exports now go to the Middle East: report
Syria becomes a testing ground as Russia revives its defence industry
Across rebel-held Syria the roaring sound of incoming jets sends terrified residents scrambling for makeshift shelters.
For Russia’s military, that same sound signifies a degree of success.
While it is still a far second to the United States on the list of global weapons exporters, the war in Syria has served as a marker of Russia's efforts to sell its own weapons abroad, particularly in the Middle East.
"Today our military industrial complex made our army look in a way we can be proud of," Vladimir Shamanov, a former commander of Russia's airborne troops who now serves as head of the Russian Duma's defence committee, told journalists last month. "As we helped the brotherly Syrian people, we tested over 200 new types of weapons.”
Read more: Russian weapons in Syria
"It's not an accident that today they are coming to us from many directions to purchase our weapons, including countries that are not our allies.”
Russia’s military had not been fully involved in an active conflict for decades, until its intervention in Syria in 2015 gave it a chance to show off the new weapons it had developed - from the T90 tank to a pair of Su-57 stealth fighter prototypes that were reported to be in Syria in February.
“It’s pretty indicative of how [the] Russian arms industry has become this main pillar of the Russian economy,” said Yury Barmin, an analyst of Russian policy in the Middle East at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow. “Whether it is good or bad, it’s definitely been something that has been happening – at least the interest in Russian weapons has spiked.”
As he approaches next week's likely reelection, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been keen to boast about Russia’s military prowess, including nuclear missiles.
This weekend, the Russian ministry of defense announced it had successfully tested a hypersonic air-to-ground missile they claim is more advanced than any currently available.
Weapons Russia has deployed or is believed to have deployed to Syria for the first time also include ship-launched cruise missiles, air defense systems, drones, rocket launchers, body armour, as well as various configurations of fighter jets.
In the last year, Russia has inked deals to supply arms across the Middle East. A spokesman for Rosoboronexport, the Russian government body that administers weapons exports, said late last year that the Middle East now accounted for 20 per cent of Russia’s business.
Moscow is also actively seeking to start arms sales to the head of the Libya National Army Khalifa Hifter, whose militia controls part of Libya. Other clients include Iraq, Iran and Algeria.
Those deals totaled more than US $5 billion (Dh18.4billion). That figure was dwarfed by US sales and contracts during the same period, which included a deal with Saudi Arabia that totaled more than US $110 billion and could run to US $350 billion over the next decade.
While it is hardly cutting into the US market, there is a political advantage for Russia as well – giving traditional US allies an alternative source for weapons also gives Russia further political leverage in the region as it continues to support traditional allies like Syria.
Russia has also expressed a willingness to step in when the US government is reluctant to provide support, as happened in the case of Egypt in 2013 after the then-US president Barack Obama froze arms sales to the country because of human rights concerns.
The Middle East has been a major market for arms sales in the past decade. Arms imports by Middle Eastern countries increased by 103 per cent between 2008-2012 and 2013-2017, and accounted for 32 per cent of global arms imports in 2013-2017, according to new data on arms transfers published on Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Arab countries were the four of the five largest arms importers from 2013-2017, according to the SIPRI data. Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer, with arms imports increasing by 225 per cent compared with 2008–12. Arms imports by Egypt—the third largest importer in 2013–17—grew by 215 per cent between 2008-12 and 2013-17.
“I would expect it to stay stable or maybe increase in 2018,” said SIPRI’s Pieter Wezeman. “The use of weapons in conflicts in the Middle East particularly against ISIL has proven there is a perceived utility to using weapons, and I think we’re likely to see more.”
“I’d be nervous of framing this as a Russian issue – Russia’s by no means alone in using this as a laboratory to test of weapons,” said Chris Woods, the executive director of Airwars, which tracks casualties in Iraq and Syria. “The only thing that might be unique is the number of weapons systems they say they have tested.”
“The British have been heavily touting the Brimstone missiles off the back of their being used in Iraq and Syria – so it’s not unusual to promote home arms sales in this way,” Mr Woods said, referring to a type of air-to-ground missile manufactured in the UK.
None of this bodes well for peace in the Middle East.
“What the Russians and the Americans need to talk about right now, first and foremost, is the de-weaponisation of the region. The arms transfers are just not conducive to peace in region,” said Mr Barmin.