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

Jack Shanley & Mick F.

Introduction     

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 first 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, February 2021). After data has been collected for the whole of 2021, a full report will be released.

Key findings

  • Compared to the total number of online trades documented in December 2020 and January 2021, there was a decrease in market activity in February 2021;
  • There has been a significant increase in the number of blank pistols traded,  however this is almost entirely attributable to a single large sale;
  • A large proportion of the AK-family self-loading rifles documented over the past month were relatively expensive AK-103 models; and
  • The AKS-74U self-loading rifle continues to command an extremely high price relative to comparable weapons.

Describing the Dataset

Items by Class

In February 2021, 235 sales of small arms, light weapons, munitions, and blank-firing pistols were recorded by ARES. Items classified under the category of “Other” in ARCS dominated the dataset, driven exclusively by sales of blank-firing pistols. Blank-firing pistol sales constitute 43% of all documented sales, a remarkable increase of 270% from the previous three-month period, as covered in ARES Research Note 11. Critically, 92 of the 102 blank-firing pistols documented during the recording period originated with a single trade in mid-February. This large sale accords with reports received by ARES from confidential informants within Syria, who have indicated that some traders transfer hundreds of blank-firing weapons at a time. Sales of items classified as Small Arms followed blank-firing pistols, and accounting for 38% of documented sales. In total, there were fewer sales in February than December (387 sales) or January (326), but more than were documented in November (104). The scarcity of light weapons sales reported in Research Note 11 continued in February, with only a single example (a GP-30 auxiliary grenade launcher) documented. Munitions made up 17% of the trades documented—the same percentage reported in Research Note 11.

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

Small Arms by Type and Sub-type

The majority of documented small arms trades related to rifles. Rifles represented 68% of small arms offers in February, a larger proportion than was documented in Research Note 11 (55%). Additionally, bolt-action rifles were more prevalent in the data than in the preceding reporting period, representing more than 19% of the documented rifle offers. Self-loading pistols made up nearly 21% of documented sales in February. Additionally, five sub-machine guns, four handheld machine guns, and one manually operated (break-open, single-shot) shotgun were documented in the dataset.

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

Small Arms by Country of Origin

It was possible to identify the national origin of 71 of the 91 documented sales of lethal-purpose small arms. When blank-firing pistols are assessed together with small arms, 101 examples of the 193 weapons were of Turkish origin (52%)—a significant increase from ARES Research Note 11 (27%). Russian (including Soviet) weapons were the second most common, constituting 16% of all sales. However, this proportion increased to 34% once only lethal-purpose weapons were considered (31 examples). Czech and East German weapons were the next most common, representing 9% and 8% of the documented lethal-purpose small arms respectively. In contrast to ARES Research Note 11, Chinese weapons were of reduced significance, with only 5 examples documented (5% of the dataset). Weapons could be identified from 15 different countries, including craft-produced bolt-action designs from Idlib, in Syria.

Self-loading Rifles by Family

Of the 50 documented self-loading rifles offered for sale in February, 49 could be identified by model. All but 5 of  the 50 rifles were AK-family weapons (44 examples). In congruence with ARES Research Note 11, a relatively large number of AK-103 and AK-103-2 rifles (10 examples) were documented, making them as common as AKM-pattern weapons. Pricing data was recorded for 22 self-loading rifles in February. AK-103 and AK-103-2 rifles remain relatively expensive, with listed prices more than twice that of other 7.63 × 39 mm AK-family rifles. Only three AK-family weapons chambered for the 5.45 × 39 mm cartridge were documented—all were more expensive than any of the 7.62 × 39 mm weapons. Of particular interest is the $3,000 USD price tag of an AKS-74U rifle offered for sale, which is nearly three times the asking price of the next-most expensive self-loading rifle. In addition to AK-family weapons, two Sa vz. 58 rifles, two CETME Model C rifles, and a Steyr AUG rifle were recorded. The Sa vz. 58 and CETME Model C rifles commanded low prices.

Self-loading Pistols by Model

There were relatively few documented sales of (lethal-purpose) self-loading pistols in February, with only 19 examples recorded. No individual model represented a large majority of the dataset, but PM-pattern (‘Makarov’) pistols were the most common, accounting for 32% of documented sales. Other notable models include a Glock 19 Gen 3 pistol (with no price data) and a relatively expensive HS Produkt HS-9, chambered for 9 × 19 mm. Pricing data was available for 10 self-loading pistols.

Of the 102 blank-firing pistols which were documented in February, 101 were identifiable by model. The Turkish Lord T822 model made up 93% (95 examples) of all recorded sales of blank-firing pistols. Nearly all of the T822 model weapons originate from a single sale, discussed below.

Individual sales of interest

Bulk Sale of Turkish Lord T822 Blank-firing Pistols

Figure 2.1 A single sale of Lord T822  blank-firing pistols offered in North-western Syria in mid-February 2021 consisted of 92 examples (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

As was evidenced in ARES Research Note 11, blank-firing pistols represent a large proportion of the weapons sold online in North and North-western Syria. The majority of these weapons appear to be  sold in their ‘original’ form—i.e., they have not been converted to fire lethal-purpose ammunition. Nonetheless, it is clear that many are converted to lethal-purpose use, either by down-stream (intermediary) sellers or individual end users. A large sale in mid-February 2021 consisted of 92 examples of the most common blank-firing pistol in the region—the Lord T822. The packaging seen in Figure 2.1 likely indicates the items were only recently transported. They may have been smuggled from Turkey into Syria.

Glock 19 Generation 3 Self-loading Pistol

Figure 2.2 A Glock 19 Gen3 for sale in North-western Syria in late February 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

Whilst Glock 19 Gen 3 self-loading pistols are not uncommon in Syria, this example is notable. Many of the Glock 19 handguns in Syria have passed through Iraq. In the mid-2000s, the United States supplied thousands of Glock 19 pistols to Iraqi security forces, many of which were lost or captured by Islamic State fighters and others. Through this mechanism—and following supply along tribal lines to fighters in neighbouring Syria—many of these pistols found their way across the border. This handgun is in unusually good condition, however, and was offered with a case. The origin of the weapon is unknown, but its serial number indicates that it was manufactured in 2009, indicating that it is four to five years newer than those first supplied to Iraqi Security Forces by the United States and suggesting another route of entry into Syria.

Craft-produced Anti-materiel Rifle

Figure 2.3 A craft-produced anti-materiel rifle manufactured and offered for sale in North-western Syria in early February 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, individuals and small groups have craft-produced anti-material rifles (AMRs) to meet a perceived tactical need of various non-state actors within the country. In recent years, many of these rifles—including this example—have demonstrated a significant improvement in craftsmanship over the crude weapons built in the early years of the conflict. This example features many locally made components, including the receiver, bolt, stock, rear monopod, bipod, and muzzle device. The barrel is sourced from a conventionally produced weapon, a common practice in Syria and elsewhere. The East-German-pattern grip is also a conventionally manufactured component, although in this case it may have originated in Iran. These grips are commonly incorporated fitted to locally-produced AMRs. This rifle was listed without a price, but a similar example was sold in 2019 for 5,000 USD.

Sources

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

Schmitt, Eric & Ginger Thompson. 2007. ‘A broken supply chain leaked arms in Iraq’. New York Times. Digital edition: 11 November. <https://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/world/africa/11iht-weapons.1.8278767.html>.

Karouny, Mariam. 2013. ‘Insight: Syria rebels bolstered by new arms but divisions remain’. Reuters. Digital edition: 26 February. <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-crisis-weapons/insight-syria-rebels-bolstered-by-new-arms-but-divisions-remain-idUKBRE91P0PQ20130226>.

Angelovski, Ivan, Miranda Patrucic & Lawrence Marzouk. 2016. ‘Revealed: the £1bn of weapons flowing from Europe to Middle East’. The Guardian. Digital edition: 27 July. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/27/weapons-flowing-eastern-europe-middle-east-revealed-arms-trade-syria>.

Ferguson, Jonathan. 2014. ‘Syrian Rebels Produce Homemade Anti-Materiel Rifles’. The Hoplite (ARES company blog). <https://armamentresearch.com/syrian-rebels-produce-homemade-anti-materiel-rifles/>.

Hays, G. & N.R. Jenzen-Jones. 2018. Beyond State Control: Improvised and Craft-produced Small Arms and Light Weapons. Geneva: Small Arms Survey. <http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/U-Reports/SAS-improvised-craft-weapons-report.pdf>.


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