More than two years into Syria’s civil war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is settling his bills for Russian arms orders through the Russian banking system to try to shore up ties with his most powerful ally, a Russian arms industry source said.
The payments, which have increased in recent months, show how al-Assad has sustained his ties with his main diplomatic defender, a relationship that came under the spotlight last week as Western countries plan military action to punish him for suspected chemical weapons attacks on civilians.
A Reuters investigation shows that the relationship has deepened in recent months.
Although it was not possible to say for certain if they are bringing weapons, the number of ships traveling to Syria from a Ukrainian port used by Russia’s arms export monopoly has increased sharply since April.
The Russian defense industry source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said al-Assad had started in recent months paying off a nearly US$1 billion contract for four S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems and another US$550 million order for 36 Yak-130 trainer fighter planes.
“They’ve already made the first payment for the Yak-130, likely 10 percent of it. Regarding the S-300, they’ve definitely made a first down payment of 20 percent, but we are probably at half of the payment at this point,” the source said.
Another Russian source who has links with businesses dealing with Syria, and two Moscow-based members of the Syrian opposition, said the al-Assad family’s financial affairs in Russia have been personally looked after by al-Assad’s maternal uncle, Mohammed Makhlouf, from a room in a Soviet-era skyscraper hotel, overlooking the Moskva River.
“That’s where all the operations have taken place. That’s where Makhlouf meets with those bringing money in. He is looking after all the operations, making sure everything goes according to plan,” said one of the Syrian opposition members living in Moscow, who is in touch with the central bank in Damascus.
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, said the payments for arms were an important way for Syria to prove to Moscow that it deserves its continued support.
“Syria needs Russia to lend it some international credence and any payments would be a way of ensuring Moscow that it can be taken seriously as a partner,” he said.
Repeated attempts to reach Makhlouf and other Syrian officials for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
Russian weapons accounted for 50 percent of Syria’s arms imports before the uprising against al-Assad began in 2011, according to a Syrian defense ministry defector. Payments for those arms were usually deposited in the state bank accounts of Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms dealer.
In 2011, when protests against al-Assad began, Russia sent almost US$1 billion in arms to Syria’s troops. Russia has often repeated that the weapons it sends cannot be used in the conflict and that it will continue selling arms while no international arms embargo exists on Syria.
Nevertheless, through much of last year and the start of this year as Russia was working with the West to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, no new arms deals were signed with al-Assad. Rosoboronexport said Damascus had fallen to be Moscow’s 13th or 14th biggest client last year.