Syria's Risky Arms Race

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Yuri Kozyrev/NOOR for TIME

The head of the Syrian delegation to the semi-annual Russian arms bazaar, which is organized by the state weapons and engineering conglomerate Russian Technologies, tries out a new silencer-equipped Kalashnikov assault rifle, the AK-104, at an airfield near the town of Zykovsky, outside Moscow. The weapon is best for "house-to-house combat" and anti-terror raids, explains Andrei Vishnyakov (second from right), a salesman for the Russian weapons manufacturer Izhmash.

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Among the nonstate actors contributing to the Syrian arms race are Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been among the most active in supporting the rebels, sometimes in exchange for loyalty. Molham Aldrobi, an executive member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a founding member of the Syrian National Council, says his organization has been providing "all kinds of support," from logistics and financial aid to weapons. "We're trying to get anything that is more efficient and more effective in this struggle against Bashar," Aldrobi tells TIME from Jidda, Saudi Arabia.

In the Russian analysis, the West is trying to control the flow of arms to the rebels, primarily through its Sunni allies, like Turkey and the Gulf states. "Surely you don't think a tiny state like Qatar is acting alone in all this," scoffs Ordzhonikidze, the Russian diplomat. The motivations for the West are simple, he suggests. For Europe, the goal is regime change so that an oil pipeline can be built from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. For the U.S., as ever, the prize is Iran, which would be isolated if its only major ally in the Middle East fell. Whether or not this intelligence is accurate, it is considered so by Russia's leader, and that makes it hard for them to stay on the sidelines while, in their eyes, the West carves up another region of the world.

Syria is also home to tens of thousands of Russians, a legacy of the cultural and scientific exchanges that began in 1963, when the socialist Baath Party came to power. Soon after, Syria became a Soviet client state under the rule of Hafez Assad, Bashar Assad's father. A legacy of that relationship is Russia's naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only military base Russia has left outside the former Soviet Union. On July 10, the Russian Ministry of Defense said it had sent a flotilla of warships for exercises near Tartus, the largest show of force in the region since the conflict in Syria began. "If we lose Tartus, we can kiss our foothold in that region goodbye," says Konstantin Sivkov, a Russian military strategist who once served as a naval commodore in Tartus. "The entire Mediterranean would be surrounded by NATO, and we cannot let that happen."

The Next War?
The longer Russia continues defending Syria, however, the greater international pressure Russia comes under. In July, Clinton said the world should make Moscow "pay a price" for standing by Assad — and the frequent reports of Syrian troops torturing and massacring civilians are regularly thrown in Russia's face. This presents an image problem, says Rosoboronexport's Isaykin. "Around these hot spots, efforts are made to present our organization as some kind of evil genius who is trying to pour kerosene on the fire," he tells TIME at the Moscow arms bazaar, which his company helped organize and sponsor.

In April, Human Rights Watch informed Isaykin in an open letter that Assad's use of Russian arms puts his firm "at a high risk of complicity" in war crimes. The independent watchdog later urged a global boycott of Rosoboronexport. Isaykin describes the attempts to blacken his company's name as unfair competition on the part of his Western counterparts. "Of course I mean competition in the broadest sense of the word," he says. "It always existed, and it will continue to exist." So his orders from the government thus far are to soldier on. He says Rosoboronexport has every intention of fulfilling its multibillion-dollar contracts with the Syrian government as long as Assad can pay the bills. "None of these events will influence our relationships with our traditional markets in any way," Isaykin says.

But Russia's decision to meet with Syrian opposition leaders in Moscow may indicate that Russia is seeking to ensure its foothold in Syria well after a possible Assad ouster. "We are not married to Assad," explains Sivkov. "We can maintain our position in Syria as long as there is a normal succession process." Russia's arms contracts with Syria require the two countries to maintain stable relations so that the weapons can be installed, serviced and repaired. Russia usually provides ammunition, technical support and training for the lifetimes of the weapons it sells. So unless the post-Assad government wants to replace its entire military infrastructure, it will not be able to sever ties with Russia.

That relationship would come to an end, says Sivkov, if the West insists on uprooting Assad's regime completely. "That would spark a total war," he says. The Alawites — the offshoot of Shi'ism that the Assads belong to and gain much of their support from — would be at risk of persecution at the hands of the majority Sunnis, Iran could be dragged in, oil prices could spike and the region would be in danger of dissolving into a sectarian quagmire.

Part of the reason the West has not been willing to give the rebels heavy artillery is that if Assad is overthrown, "it's going to be ugly," says Joseph Holliday, a Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. "No one really wants to precipitate a war right now. For those reasons you'll see a continued proxy conflict — the Gulf states vs. Russia and Iran, and the U.S. trying to play referee."

So until all sides can agree on a better option, the arms race in Syria is likely to continue — for this war and, perhaps even more worrying, for one yet to start. Abu Saddam, the Lebanese arms dealer, says his clients in Syria are stockpiling weapons not as much to overthrow Assad as to prepare for the carnage that his downfall would initiate. "That will be the real battle," he says. "The FSA will want to take control, the Salafists will want to take control, the Muslim Brotherhood will want to take control, and the CIA, the Saudis and the KGB will want a say in what happens. Libya and Iraq? They will be nothing compared to what will happen in Syria once Bashar falls."

with reporting by Aryn Baker and Rami Aysha / Beirut, Rania Abouzeid / Turkish-Syrian Border and Jay Newton-Small / Washington

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