An expert's point of view on a current event.

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.


More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.