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

Jack Shanley & Mick F.

The conflict in Syria fuels a diverse trade in arms and munitions. Many transactions are performed online, providing an opportunity for remote analysis. This article is the seventh 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, August 2021). After data has been collected for the whole of 2021, a full report will be released.

Key findings

  • August 2021 saw an increase in the total number of documented sales over the previous month, although the total remained lower than other recent months;
  • There was a slight increase in the total number of  blank-firing weapons sold when compared with the previous month, however there was a continued proportional reduction in sales of blank-firing weapons over previous months;
  • There was a notably diverse mix of self-loading rifles offered for sale this month; and
  • A large number of sales offering Type 56-series rifles were documented this month.

Describing the Dataset

Item by Class

In July 2021, 132 sales of small arms, munitions, and blank-firing pistols were recorded by ARES. This represents a substantial drop in sales—by more than 530 trades—when compared to June 2021 (667). In fact, July 2021 accounts for the lowest number of sales yet documented since ARES began this period of monitoring sales in the region, in December 2020. In June 2021 two light weapons—both Breda-SAFAT heavy machine guns—were documented for sale.

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

Small Arms by Type and Sub-type

The majority of documented lethal-purpose small arms trades related to rifles (61%), equal to the rate documented in the 2021 update. However, due to the increase in total documented arms sales, the number of documented rifle trades increased 127% from July 2021. Self-loading pistols were the second-most-common type of lethal-purpose small arm documented, constituting 32% of documented sales. This marks a % decrease in the proportion of self-loading pistol shales as a share of lethal-purpose small arms from July 2021 (33%).  Additionally, 10 handheld machine guns, seven sub-machine guns, and two self-loading shotguns were documented in the dataset.

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

Small Arms by Country of Origin

It was possible to identify the national origin of 188 of the 285 documented items this month. Of the documented small arms and blank-firing pistol sales, items of Chinese origin were the most common (18%). All but two of the 44 documented Chinese offers were Type 56-family rifles. Sales of Turkish and Soviet origin were the second most prevalent (both 11%). Spanish (7%), Belgian (5%), and Czech (5%) weapons were the next most common. Weapons could be identified from 19 different countries.

Self-loading Rifles by Family

Of the 121 documented self-loading rifles offered for sale in August, all could be identified by model or family. All but 14 of the 125 documented self-loading rifles were AK-family weapons. These included 45 Type 56-series rifles (Type 56, Type 56-1, Type 56-2 models), five MPi-Km-series rifles, three Type 3 AK-series rifles (Type 3 AK and Type 3 AKS models), one Zastava M70B3 rifle, one Kbk AKMS rifle, one KLF rifle, one AKKS rifle, one AK-63F rifle, one Type 68 rifle, and one Type 2 AKS rifle. 40 AKM-type rifles were also documented. These were the most commonly documented self-loading rifle by type, constituting 33% of all documented self-loading rifles. Six of the documented AK-family rifles were chambered for the 5.45 × 39 mm cartridge—twice as many as were documented last month. In addition to the AK-family weapons, five Sa vz. 58-series rifles, four SVD rifles, two G3A3 rifles, one FAL rifle, one CETME Model C rifle, and one SG 543 rifle were recorded.

Self-loading Pistols by Model

There were 71 documented sales of lethal-purpose self-loading pistols in August 2021, 21 more than were documented in July 2021. This represents a 14% decrease in lethal-purpose pistol sales (from 43% to 29%) as a share of small arms and blank-firing pistols sold this month when compared to July 2021. The TT-pattern ‘Tokarev’ (14 examples), FN Herstal Hi-Power-pattern pistols (nine examples), and Star Model B/BM (eight examples) were the most commonly documented lethal-purpose self-loading pistols in August 2021.

Of the 24 blank-firing pistols documented, all but two were identifiable by model. The Turkish Lord T882 and Turkish Ekol Special 99 constituted 38% (9 examples) and 21% (5 examples) of all recorded blank-firing pistols, respectively. August 2021 saw a slight increase in the absolute number of blank-firing pistols from July 2021. However, given the increase in total documented offers, this still represented a reduction in trades of blank-firing pistols in proportional terms.

Individual Sales of Interest

Customised AK-74-type rifle with ‘pistol brace’

Figure 2.1 A shortened AK-74-type self-loading rifle fitted with custom furniture and a ‘pistol brace’ for sale in North-western Syria in mid-August 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT).

This month, a heavily modified AK-74-type self-loading rifle was offered for sale for 1,250 USD. The rifle appears to have been shortened and retrofitted with new components to look like an AKS-74U model. Fitted modifications include a new AKS-74U-style gas-block—likely locally manufactured in Syria—and an AKS-74U-style rear sight without an aperture. The furniture was also altered; the handguard was replaced with one which features picatinny rails (likely a Chinese component intended for airsoft guns) and a new pistol grip was fitted. Most interestingly, the rifle’s stock has been replaced with a ‘pistol brace’, nominally designed to be fastened to the shooter’s forearm by a hook-and-loop strap. Pistol braces are popular in the United States as a means to circumvent legislation specifying a minimum barrel length for weapons legally considered ‘rifles’, but are an uncommon sight in Syria. Demand for U.S.-style pistol braces, like many other firearms trends in Syria and other conflict zones, is likely to have originated with social media. The authors have observed that several Syrian fighters follow U.S.-based firearms community ‘influencers’ on Instagram.

Modified SVD with PKM barrel

Figure 2.2 A modified SVD rifle offered for sale in North-western Syria in early-August 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT).

An unusual SVD precision self-loading rifle fitted with a barrel taken from a PKM machine gun was documented for sale this month, with an asking price of 600 USD. Fighters in the region often fit PK and PKM barrels to Mosin-Nagant manually-operated rifles to increase their accuracy for use in a precision rifle role. Over the last two years, the authors have observed an increase in the frequency with which Syrians have performed this procedure in modifying SVD precision self-loading rifles. Heavier machine gun barrels reduce harmonic vibrations in the rifle barrel, thereby increasing its accuracy. The short supply of precision small arms in North-western Syria has inspired fighters to modify their existing weapons with new barrels, furniture, and optics to increase the limited marksmanship potential of available rifles. This trend is similarly reflected in the region’s craft-manufactured anti-material rifles, discussed in the ARES February 2021 research update.

South African Denel PMP 40 × 53 mm HE-FRAG cartridges

Figure 2.3 Several South African Denel PMP 40 × 53 mm HE-FRAG cartridges offered for sale in North-western Syria in late-August 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT).

Offered for sale at 15 USD per round, these South African Denel PMP 40 × 53 mm high explosive fragmentation (HE-FRAG) grenade launcher cartridges are rarely seen in Syria. A subsidiary of Rheinmetall, Denel PMP manufactures arms which have appeared in conflict zones around the world. In 2020, boxes for Denel-manufactured 120 mm mortar rounds were captured by the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. The HE-FRAG munitions documented in this case may have entered Syria through Turkey, which recently purchased large quantities of ammunition from Denel. Although the Turkish government insists that the munitions are to be used for military exercises within Turkey, the country has a well-documented history of providing weapons and ammunition to Syrian opposition forces.

Sources

Al-Khalidi, S. 2019. ‘Turkey sends weapons to Syrian rebels facing Russian-backed assault: Syrian sources’. Reuters. <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-idlib-idUSKCN1SV0FA>

ARES. n.d. Conflict Materiel (CONMAT) Database. Confidential. Perth: Armament Research Services ARES).

Ferguson, Jonathan & N.R. Jenzen-Jones. ‘Weapons Identification: Other Small Arms and Light Weapons’ in An Introductory Guide to the Identification of Small Arms, Light Weapons, and Associated Ammunition (Jenzen-Jones & Schroeder, eds.). Chapter 6. Geneva: Small Arms Survey. <http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/resources/publications/by-type/handbooks/weapons-id-handbook.html>.

Jenzen-Jones, N.R. (ed.). 2020. The ARES Arms & Munitions Classification System (ARCS). Perth: Armament Research Services (ARES).

Maryland. 2010. Maryland Code ‘Criminal Law :: Title 4 – Weapon Crimes :: Subtitle 2 – Handguns :: Section 4-201 – Definitions’.

Plessis, C. 2020. ‘Coronavirus & Arms Trade: Questions persist as South Africa allows the sale of munitions to Turkey’. The Daily Maverick. <https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-05-05-questions-persist-as-south-africa-allows-the-sale-of-munitions-to-turkey/amp/>.


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