Analysing the Online Arms Trade in Opposition-controlled Syria: April 2021 update

Jack Shanley & Mick F.


The conflict in Syria fuels a diverse trade in arms and munitions. Many transactions are conducted online, providing an opportunity for remote analysis. This article is the third in a series of monthly updates to ARES Research Note 11: Analysing the Online Arms Trade in Opposition-controlled Syria. Readers should refer to that report for further information on methodology and context. These short updates will present ongoing analysis of the online arms market in opposition-controlled North and North-western Syria, focusing on the previous month (in this case, April 2021). After data has been collected for the whole of 2021, a full report will be released.

Note: Due to technical issues encountered during data collection, a portion of data from mid-April could not be analysed for this update. Accordingly, this article presents a more limited snapshot than previous updates.

Describing the Dataset

Items by Class

In April 2021, 304 sales of small arms, light weapons, munitions, and blank-firing pistols were recorded by ARES. The total volume of documented sales was higher than that documented in March (289) and February (235), but still less than compared to December 2020 (387 sales) and January 2021 (326). The data loss noted above means that this total volume is artificially low, however. Thus, this report represents the lower bound for the number of online arms sales in the region in April. This month, a single light weapons component—the grip of an RPG-29 shoulder-fired recoilless weapon—was documented, demonstrating the continued scarcity of light weapons as evidenced in previous updates.

Figure 1.1 Items contained in the April dataset by ARCS Class (source: ARES).

Small Arms by Type and Sub-type

The majority (64%) of documented lethal-purpose small arms trades related to rifles, an increase of 15% from the previous March update (49%). Consistent with previous reports, a large majority of documented rifle sales are of self-loading rifles. Self-loading pistols were the second-most-common type of small arm documented, accounting for nearly 30% of recorded sales. This represents a significant decrease (15%) from March. Additionally, six manually operated (pump-action and break-action) shotguns, four sub-machine guns, and three machine guns were documented in the dataset.

Figure 1.2 Small arms contained in the April dataset by ARCS Type/Sub-type (source: ARES).

Small Arms by Country of Origin

It was possible to identify the national origin of 210 of the 271 documented small arms sales. Turkish weapons (including non-lethal blank-firing pistols) were the most common, constituting 24% of all documented sales of small arms. Czechoslovakian (11%), Chinese (11%), and Russian (including Soviet) (8%) weapons were the next most common, together accounting for nearly one third of the data. Weapons from 21 different countries could be definitively identified.

Self-loading Rifles by Family

All of the 122 documented self-loading rifles offered for sale in April could be identified by family. All but 29 of the 122 rifles were AK-family weapons (76%). AKM-series rifles were the most commonly documented self-loading rifle, constituting 45% of all documented self-loading rifles (55 examples). Significantly, no AK-103 or AK-103-2 rifles were documented in April. Five of the documented AK-family weapons were chambered for the 5.45 × 39 mm cartridge. Additionally, 24 Sa vz. 58 series rifles, one PSL precision self-loading rifle, one Steyr AUG,  one M16A2, and one SKS rifle were recorded. In congruence with previous reports, the Sa vz. 58 rifles commanded relatively low prices.

Self-loading Pistols by Model

There were 60 documented sales of lethal-purpose self-loading pistols in April 2021,  seven fewer than in March 2021. No model dominated the dataset in April 2021. The Star Model B series (9 examples), PM-pattern (‘Makarov’) (7 examples), and FN Herstal Hi-Power (6 examples) pattern pistols were the three most-commonly documented lethal-purpose self-loading pistols in April 2021.

Of the 68 blank-firing pistols which were documented in April, all were identifiable by model. The Turkish Lord T822 model made up 49% (33 examples) of all recorded sales of blank-firing pistols.

Individual sales of interest

Delta Defence Group 19 self-loading pistol

Figure 2.1 A Delta Defence Group 19 self-loading pistol offered for sale for 2,150 USD in North-western Syria in early April, 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

This self-loading pistol, which bears a strong external resemblance to the Austrian Glock designs, is marked to indicate it was manufactured by the elusive ‘Delta Defense Group’ (D.D.G.). Since at least 2019, weapons with “D.D.G.” markings have been documented in the Middle East, predominantly in Iraq. In addition to this Glock-style pistol, D.D.G. appears to have manufactured other polymer-framed, double-action pistols (both compact and full-sized), as well as AR-15-pattern rifles. It is possible that D.D.G. is not a legally registered company, as an extensive search by researchers at Silah Report has uncovered no publicly available information on the manufacturer. It is believed that weapons with D.D.G markings are produced by a third-party ‘white label’ company, with links to other manufacturers. See this previous Silah Report research.

Beretta Model 1938 sub-machine gun

Figure 2.2 A Beretta Model 1938 sub-machine gun offered for sale for 75 USD in North-western Syria in mid-April 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

Although a small number of Beretta Model 1938/44 sub-machine guns were used by the Free Syrian Army as far back as 2012, these weapons are rare in Syria. The Beretta Model 1938/44 (a simplified version of the Model 1938/42) was produced in the years following the Second World War and exported in unknown numbers to Syria. Thus, while this example could not be identified definitively as either a Model 1938/42 or Model 1938/44 from the available imagery, it is likely that it is of the later pattern.

Steyr AUG

Figure 2.3 A Steyr AUG offered for sale for 360 USD in North-western Syria in late April 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

The Austrian Steyr AUG shown in Figure 2.3 features similar modifications to a rifle used by the Malhama Tactical jihadist group. The original scope has been removed and replaced with a length of picatinny rail, and the entire weapon features a ‘Realtree’ style camouflage pattern, applied using the hydrographic method. Steyr AUG rifles were first documented in Syria in early 2013. Some of these rifles were reportedly supplied to opposition forces in Northern Syria via Turkey. It is likely that these rifles originated in Saudi Arabia, which has previously supplied weapons to opposition forces in Syria. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia purchased 50,000 AUG rifles, identified in previous reports by the early-production AUG rifle’s distinctive slotted muzzle device (these early guns are sometimes referred to as ‘A0’ rifles). The guns documented in Syria—including this modified example—match these early AUG specifications, which may suggest they are Saudi weapons.

RUAG HG 85 Grenades

Figure 2.4 Seven Swiss RUAG HG 85 hand grenades (alongside two M67 grenades) offered for sale in North-western Syria in early April 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

These Swiss RUAG HG 85 hand grenades are relatively uncommon in the Middle East. Swiss weapons and munitions are broadly rare in the region, making this single sale of seven examples noteworthy. Markings on HG 85 and OHG 92 hand grenades documented by ARES throughout the Middle East and in North Africa are consistent with lot numbers known to be associated with an export of hand grenades from Switzerland to the United Arab Emirates which took place in 2003 and 2004. The UAE re-exported Swiss hand grenades to a number of countries, including providing them to non-state actors in Libya and Syria. Those sent to Syria arrived no later than 2012, and were subsequently used by the Islamic State, amongst other groups. The grenades have subsequently proliferated to other MENA states.

Editor’s note: In 2019, Swiss journalist Fabian Eberhard received a prestigious journalism prize for his work examining the recent proliferation of Swiss weapons (including hand grenades) in the MENA region. ARES provided much of the underlying research and is cited in the laudation (p. 19).

Bosnian 12.7 × 108 mm BZT-44 cartridges

Figure 2.5 A box of 12.7 × 108 mm BZT-44 API-T ammunition produced in 2015 by Igman d.d. in Bosnia & Herzegovina, and offered for sale in North-western Syria in early April 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

The markings on the box of 12.7 × 108 mm BZT-44 (armour-piercing incendiary tracer) ammunition shown in Figure 2.5 indicate that it was manufactured by Igman d.d. in Bosnia & Herzegovina, in 2015. The tip colouration of red over silver, shown in Figure 2.6,is consistent with the markings on the packaging. This follows the NATO marking practice (p. 160), despite the Warsaw Pact 12.7 × 108 mm cartridge with a projectile design derived from the Soviet BZT-44 round. This is consistent with manufacturer documentation. The number of loose cartridges in the sheet-metal box (104), is also consistent with manufacturer documentation. The ammunition pictured here is likely to have entered the country via supply lines which supported anti-government fighters.

Figure 2.6 A box of Bosnian 12.7 × 108 mm BZT-44 API-T ammunition produced in 2015 and offered for sale in North-western Syria. Note the NATO API-T tip colour code of red over silver (source: ARES CONMAT Database).


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Remember, all arms and munitions are dangerous. Treat all firearms as if they are loaded, and all munitions as if they are live, until you have personally confirmed otherwise. If you do not have specialist knowledge, never assume that arms or munitions are safe to handle until they have been inspected by a subject matter specialist. You should not approach, handle, move, operate, or modify arms and munitions unless explicitly trained to do so. If you encounter any unexploded ordnance (UXO) or explosive remnants of war (ERW), always remember the ‘ARMS’ acronym:

AVOID the area
RECORD all relevant information
MARK the area from a safe distance to warn others
SEEK assistance from the relevant authorities