That appears to have changed in the past few months as diplomacy between Washington and Moscow reached a dead end over a proposed peace conference in Switzerland. Russian President Vladimir Putin approved more weapons sales, the Russian arms industry source said.
“About a year ago they put [some small arms deliveries] on hold, but after Putin got angry in the lead-up to talks about Geneva 2, the green light was given for limited small arms deliveries,” the source said.
The source said shipments of weapons, large and small, may be on the rise again. Reuters analysis of international shipping satellite data appears to support that conclusion.
The data from Reuters parent company ThomsonReuters, which tracks ship movements based on satellite imaging of their radar signals, shows that at least 14 ships traveled from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Oktyabrsk to Syria’s port of Tartous over the past 18 months.
Nine of those trips were made since April, showing a dramatic increase in traffic on the route.
While it is not possible to say definitively what was in those ships, Russian defense experts say they suspect they could have been carrying arms. Oktyabrsk is one of the main ports used by Rosoboronexport to ship Russian weapons.
Moscow-based think tank CAST said the route is a common one for arms deliveries.
Apparently underscoring the secrecy of the shipments, most vessels making the trip switched off their radar while at Oktyabrsk only to turn it on again after setting sail for Syria.
The defense industry source said he was not aware of what small arms were being delivered to Syria, but said shipments most likely included continued deliveries of anti-tank Kornet missiles, which Syria has bought since around 1998. Moscow and Damascus have concluded around six or seven contracts for the system.
Israeli defense think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies said in 2010 that Syria had concluded contracts for 1,500 Kornet missiles and 50 launchers, and that further contracts were under discussion.
Small arms such as machine guns are nearly impossible to trace because of the amount of counterfeit weapons and the number of arms traders who sell weapons without the blessing of the Kremlin.
In January, Russian news agencies reported that two ships were carrying munitions to Syria, but did not clarify whether they were delivering the munitions to al-Assad or to the small repair and maintenance base Russia’s navy keeps at Tartous.
Ruslan Pukhov, director of CAST, said large numbers of Russian military ships were also traveling to Tartous over the past year, and speculated that they could be carrying arms.
“I wouldn’t be surprised, given their frequency, if these ships were carrying some kind of weapons we haven’t been told about,” Pukhov said.
The US and EU have both imposed sanctions on Syria’s financial system which, though not applying in Russia, could apply to large Russian banks that do business in the West.
Earlier this year, a US Treasury official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Washington could take action against any Russian banks found dealing with Syria’s central bank and the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria.
A Syrian newspaper reported that Syria’s central bank said two years ago it had ruble and foreign currency bank accounts in Russian banks VTB VEB and Gazprombank.