What Russia Gave Syria

A guide to Bashar al-Assad's arsenal.

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.


Tanks: According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' 2011 Military Balance, the Syrian army possesses 4,950 main battle tanks, along with another 4,000 light tanks and armored personnel carriers. The Russian-made T-72 figures in heavily to this force, and Moscow continues to upgrade these tanks for Syria. Russia has already modernized 800 T-72s for the Syrian military under a recent contract, and another 200 tanks are on their way. 

Above, a modernized T-72 patrols the streets of the Damascus suburb of Douma. It has been fitted with armor to protect it from rocket and missile attacks.


Landmines: Russian weaponry has also helped the Assad regime trap its citizens inside the country, while preventing weapons and aid from the outside from getting in. In an effort to control its porous border, Syrian forces have planted landmines along the frontier with Turkey -- and also reportedly inside Lebanon. These mines include Russian-made PMN-2 anti-personnel mines and TMN-46 anti-vehicle mines. In March, a former Syrian army mine expert detailed the removal of 300 PMN-2 mines from the Syrian-Turkish border.


Missiles: Syria has large numbers of Russian-made GRAD multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS), capable of simultaneously firing up to 40 122mm missiles at targets up to 20 miles away -- a devastating and inherently indiscriminate weapon.

Syria's neighbors also have plenty to worry about: Assad's military possesses a large arsenal of long-range missiles capable of being launched across its borders. A 2010 report described Syria's array of Scud missile systems -- including the Scud-D, which is capable of delivering a 1,500 pound warhead to a target over 900 miles away. Those in Assad's inner circle have also not been shy about broaching the possibility that they could broaden the conflict if the regime's demise appeared imminent. "If there is no stability here, there's no way there will be stability in Israel," Rami Makhlouf, a Syrian business tycoon and Assad's cousin, told the New York Times last year.


Chemical weapons: Perhaps most worryingly, Syria possesses vast stocks of chemical and biological weapons, and has the delivery mechanisms to use them if it wishes to do so. According to the CIA's annual reports to Congress, these weapons include everything from mustard gas to nerve agents such as sarin, and possibly VX gas.

Israeli officials have repeatedly expressed concern that these weapons could be turned on them by the Syrian military, or fall into the hands of terror organizations. The United States and Israel have reportedly planned to secure these chemical weapons stocks should the Assad regime collapse.


Troops: U.S. military officials have accused Russia of sending troops to protect its naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus, Moscow's only military outpost on the Mediterranean.


What the opposition has: Unlike the Libyan rebels, who gained access to vast stockpiles of weaponry when large parts of the Libyan army defected at the beginning of the protests, the Syrian armed opposition remains comparatively lightly armed. Their rag-tag armament has proved little match for the Syrian Army's advanced weaponry.

However, the Syrian rebels' expanding arsenal and guerrilla tactics are increasingly turning them into a deadly force. Even as overall violence declined in May, for example, more Syrian solders were killed in clashes with the armed opposition than in any previous month. On the morning of June 20, rebels reportedly killed at least 20 Syrian soldiers after storming a military barracks in the northwest of the country.

Putin and Obama may not agree on much when it comes to Syria, but they did agree this week about the necessity of preventing the country from descending into full-blown civil war. With their respective governments working at cross purposes, however, it remains a mystery how they expect to accomplish even that limited goal.



Abandoning Sergei Magnitsky

Why is Hillary Clinton giving up on human rights in Russia?

As Vladimir Putin settles into his third term as president, government corruption is running rampant. Putin is steadily cutting back on his people's most basic rights -- and Russians are finally saying "enough." As the opposition movement gets off the ground, international efforts to discourage Putin's government from squelching political dissent are critical. Unfortunately, however, a recent article by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signals that the United States may be preparing to forsake that role.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Clinton makes the case that Congress should repeal the Jackson-Vanik law, which was passed in the 1970s to hold the Soviet Union accountable for restrictions it placed on its citizens' right to emigrate. Her argument, however, intentionally misstates the nature of Congress's position on repealing the law. Jackson-Vanik "long ago achieved this historic purpose," Clinton writes. "Now it's time to set it aside." 

Suggesting that Jackson-Vanik's mission has concluded, or describing its repeal as a simple trade issue, is disingenuous spin. No one is opposed to repealing Jackson-Vanik on economic grounds. Everyone would welcome the increased trade that lifting the law could provide. Jackson-Vanick, however, is a law intended to promote respect for human rights in Russia. Congress is deeply opposed to repealing Jackson-Vanik without replacing it with effective human rights legislation that meets today's circumstances. Clinton, on the other hand, would apparently prefer that human rights issues not enter the conversation.

But the discussion of Jackson-Vanik cannot be separated from the increasingly authoritarian drift of Russia during Putin's 13 years in effective control of the country. Putin has methodically removed every force in society that could challenge his hold on power: He has taken control of the national television channels, destroyed all real opposition parties, and dominates the Duma, Russia's parliament. His party also effectively controls the judiciary and other branches of law enforcement -- it can obtain any ruling with only a phone call. It set up youth groups that draw their members from small towns within driving distance of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and indoctrinated its charges at state expense in outrageous nationalism, anti-Americanism, and pro-government dogma. When needed, it buses in crowds of duly indoctrinated youth to intimidate foreign diplomats, human rights defenders, and anti-corruption activists.

The Russian government's cynicism and corruption reached its pinnacle when former President Dmitry Medvedev asked Russians to come forward and fight corruption -- and a young Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, did just that. He testified against a group of organized criminals and high Russian government officials who had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from the Russian treasury. Instead of arresting the criminals, Russia's justice system turned on the messenger: Within a month, Magnitsky was imprisoned by the officials he testified against, tortured for a year, and finally beaten to death by eight officers with rubber batons in a Russian prison.

These facts are not in dispute: They are the findings of the Russian president's own Council on Human Rights, which the Russian government then chose to ignore. It was further discovered that all of the officers who Magnitsky accused amassed millions during the time he reported the theft was undertaken. This too was ignored.

Not a single official was prosecuted following Magnitsky's revelations. In fact, the same officials whom Magnitsky accused of committing the theft were put in charge of investigating it. They concluded that no money could be traced because a police truck carrying the bank records happened to explode in central Moscow, and that Magnitsky himself was the guilty party.

As Sergei Magnitsky's law partner, I remember arguing with him over whether his actions to expose the thefts were dangerous. He simply did not even consider the possibility that his government could support such criminals and that it could be personally dangerous for a citizen to come forward to defend his own Treasury. "This is the Medvedev presidency," he told me. "You are watching too many movies. This is not 1937."

Unfortunately, he was wrong. And Russians, watching his case play out in the national and international media, are increasingly coming to believe that they may very well be heading for a replay of Josef Stalin's infamous purges of 1937. That's what is at stake today: Whether the United States wishes to help avoid a historic narrowing of the rights of Russian citizens, or whether it wishes, as it did in 1937, to close its eyes to the Russian government's actions.

The Magnitsky case is proof that the Kremlin has its own interests -- interests that are categorically opposed to those of its citizens. Russians have reacted with outrage: Since Magnitsky's death, a real homegrown democratic opposition has developed in the country. The leaders of this movement have led hundreds of thousands of people in demonstrations; their words are read by millions more. People clearly want fair elections, fair courts, police who are not criminals in uniform, and officials who do not steal from, imprison, and kill their own citizens for reasons of personal gain.

Sensing a threat to its power, Putin's government has targeted the opposition for extermination. One of the first laws of Putin's third term raised the possible fines for demonstrating to more than the annual salary of most Russians.

Shortly thereafter, criminal investigations were opened and many opposition leaders had their homes searched and their computers confiscated. All of them are in danger of being named suspects for inciting extremism under these investigations, and any of them could be indicted and arrested at any moment. Putin's laws allow them to be imprisoned for years on such charges. On the day of the searches, a Twitter hashtag that translates as #Hello1937 was trending globally.

Now is a critical moment in the midst of this crackdown. The leaders of the opposition have the legal equivalent of guns at their heads, and the Russian government is contemplating how far to push things -- whether to arrest them or not.

In this environment, it should be clear why Congress is categorically opposed to repealing legislation designed to promote human rights in Russia without replacing it with something that discourages the egregious abuses going on today. New legislation should makes the Kremlin think twice about falsely imprisoning and killing those Russians who chose to stand and fight for human rights and a free press, and against corruption.

This is the real argument in Congress right now: not whether to repeal Jackson-Vanik, but what should replace it. Congress's answer is the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. It's a simple law that says if an official uses his position to illegally arrest or harm a journalist or human rights activist, that person and his or her family will lose the privilege of traveling to the United States and keeping assets there. They will also be publicly named and shamed, and therefore they will effectively lose the ability to do business in the West.

The law would act as a powerful disincentive for officials to persecute people who are fighting for a better Russia, just as Magnitsky was. However, President Barack Obama's administration has stalled the bill and tried to water it down at every opportunity due to fears that it will upset its efforts to "reset" the U.S.-Russian relationship. Clinton's efforts to portray the repeal of Jackson-Vanik as a simple trade issue -- delinking its repeal from the passage of a new bill protecting human rights -- is just the latest administration attempt to kill the Magnitsky bill.

Secretary Clinton is being less than truthful when she frames the debate over Jackson-Vanick as a question about trade. It is not -- it is a question of human rights. Does America want to abandon its efforts to promote human rights and democracy in Russia, or does it want to preserve them? This is the real issue before Congress today.

Clinton also wrote, falsely, that Russian opposition leaders favor repealing Jackson-Vanick despite their concerns over the Magnitsky case. In fact, in one of the most embarrassing boondoggles of U.S. amb. Michael McFaul's tenure in Russia, he got opposition leaders to sign a letter supporting repeal of Jackson-Vanick -- and used it the next day in the press to claim that they support repeal of Jackson-Vanick without the passage of the Magnitsky Act. The next day, he was strongly rebuked in two editorials by leading members of the Russian opposition, who said that never in a million years would they support the idea of repealing Jackson-Vanik without first passing the Magnitsky Act.

Clinton and McFaul are afraid that complaining too loudly about the Kremlin's human rights abuses will endanger the reset. But so what? Judging by the level of U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile defense, Syria, and Iran, the two countries remain more at odds than ever -- there is no reset worth talking about. As for trade, it will go on as usual between the two countries with or without sanctions for human rights abusers.

The real issue is this: Does the United States want to base its relationship with Russia on a failed realpolitik policy that has achieved nothing, and which is clearly not in our long-term interests, or shall we stand upon American ideals? For the sake of a long-term partnership between the people of each country, the United States should place its faith in the brave Russians who are standing up to their government, not their corrupt oppressors.