MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Russia faces a growing international outcry over its arms sales to Syria but shows no sign of bowing to pressure and has even increased deliveries of arms that critics say are helping keep President Bashar al-Assad in power.
The biggest importer of arms to Syria, Russia sold Damascus nearly $1 billion worth of arms including missile systems last year, while shipments of hard-to-track Russian small weapons have risen since the uprising against Assad started, government defectors say.
In January, the Russian ship Chariot, loaded with arms and ammunition, turned off its radar and sailed quietly to Syria to avoid attracting the attention of world powers increasingly frustrated by Russia and China’s refusal to back U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at ending 11 months of violence.
Citing the increased violence, Arab and Western countries have started hinting they could arm Assad’s opponents, a move that some political and defence analysts say could increase the possibility of civil war.
Moscow accuses the West of being one-sided, and says the arms it sells have not been used by Assad loyalists to kill 7,000 people, a figure used by advocacy groups, as violence has raged.
But rebel soldiers and an official who defected from the government say Moscow’s small arms trade with Damascus is booming, and the government doubled its military budget in 2011 to pay for the crackdown on the opposition.
“I would say that on average the funds (for Defence Ministry expenditure) were doubled for 2011,” said Mahmoud Suleiman Haj Hamad, the former chief auditor for Syria’s Defence Ministry who defected in January.
He said by telephone from Cairo that Russian arms accounted for 50 percent of all deals before Assad’s crackdown on the protesters. China and North Korea provided 30 percent, and Iran and other suppliers 20 percent, he said.
The government had boosted its defence budget and arms imports by cutting funds to other ministries in areas such as education and health by as much as 30 percent, he said.
“Before the uprising, Russia was trading weapons with Syria in a more limited manner. More recently ... Russia began giving more weapons to Syria,” he said.
“To my knowledge, Russia was shipping monthly,” he said, referring to deliveries prior to his defection last month.
ThomsonReuters shipping data shows at least four cargo ships since December that left the Black Sea port of Oktyabrsk - used by Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport for arms shipments - have headed for or reached the Syrian port of Tartous.
Separately was the Chariot, a Russian ship which docked at the Cypriot port of Limassol during stormy weather in mid-January. It promised to change its destination in accordance with a European Union ban on weapons to Syria but, hours after leaving Limassol, reset its course for Syria.
A Cypriot source said it was carrying a load of ammunition and a European security source said the ship was hauling ammunition and sniper rifles of the kind used increasingly by Syrian government forces against protesters.
The source also said Russian manufacturers had increased production to meet the demand from Syria. The ship’s owner Westberg said that the ship was carrying a “dangerous cargo”.
Syria hosts a Russian naval facility on its Mediterranean coast, a rare outpost abroad for Moscow’s military. Damascus has also been a loyal Russian arms customer since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when it used Soviet-made weapons against Israel which was largely supplied by the United States.
Assad has been perhaps the closest ally Russia has in a region where a year of unrest has set back its efforts to build influence and economic clout.
Numerous Russian weapons advisers work in Syria and Rosoboronexport has an office with a staff of about 20 in the country, a source close to the company said.
CAST, a Moscow-based defence think tank, says Russia sent Syria at least $960 million worth of heavy arms - which included several missile systems - in 2011 and has some $4 billion in outstanding contracts.
Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution last year that could have led to an international arms embargo on Syria. They also blocked a resolution this month calling on Assad to step down.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called this month’s veto by Russia and China a “travesty” and Washington’s U.N. ambassador Susan Rice said “any further bloodshed that flows will be on their hands”.
British-based advocacy group Avaaz Campaign Director Alice Jay said there was an “urgent need for an arms embargo”.
Hamad, the former military auditor, said many sales of Russian small arms are carried out through traders. It was not clear if they had the Kremlin’s blessing to trade the weapons.
Soviet arms are also sold by other states that have stockpiles of Soviet-era weapons that can be confused with arms coming from Russia.
“I know that Syria is paying for some of the weapons through traders and middlemen, not through contracts between states,” said Hamad.
A spokesman for Rosoboronexport said Russia’s small and heavy arms delivery programme to Syria was running on schedule without any increases in volumes.
“The rate of delivery is not being changed. They are going according to plan. They are not being sped up or increased. Of course if there were sanctions, we would stop it completely,” said spokesman Vyacheslav Davidenko.
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, denied Moscow had a hand in aggravating the conflict in Syria, “especially when what we are delivering is not that which can be used to shoot demonstrators”.
Russia has suggested that the arms the Syrian military is using against forces Assad describes as foreign-backed terrorists and armed gangs are not of Russian origin but copies of Soviet weaponry.
“I would not make any statements that they are killing demonstrators with Russian arms,” Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov told Itar-Tass news agency. “If Kalashnikov machine guns are being used to these ends, then it is obvious that they are counterfeit.”
Defence analysts say Syria also receives arms from long-time ally Iran that are dominated by copies of Soviet-era arms or Chinese-made copies.
“Iran is swimming in Chinese weapons, cheap Soviet clones or pseudo-indigenous weapons, so they get Chinese weapons. But we don’t know what because they come from Iran. (They are) most probably small arms and light weapons,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the CAST think tank.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin denied last week any suggestion that Beijing shipped weapons to Syria through Iran.
But shipments of Russian arms to Syria have become so frequent that rebel soldiers try to track the deliveries from Syria’s ports to military bases in the interior.
A former army lieutenant who defected in August and gave his name only as Omar explained how he and dozens of other fighters use a network of port workers to find out when shipments of arms arrive and where they are going, sometimes ambushing convoys.
“Every few weeks, trucks move weapons from the coast to bases in the interior,” he said. “Almost all of them are Russian.”
Anti-government rebels and defence analysts say that even if Russia cut its supplies to Syria, Damascus would still be able to get hold of Iranian, North Korean and Chinese imports. It also produces some of its own weapons.
The loss of revenue from arms sales to Syria would deal only a limited blow to Russia as it is much smaller than the income from deals with Rosoboronexport’s larger customers, India and Algeria.
Russia may also find that the demand for small arms grows, rather than heavy weapons, as the conflict moves to the cities and the prospects of civil war grow.
“We’re talking about light weapons that allow the army and security services to be more mobile and confront what is practically turning into a civil war,” said Ayham Kamel of risk research organisation Eurasiagroup.
Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, Khaled Oweis in Amman and Michael Martina in Beijing; editing by Elizabeth Piper