Analysing the Online Arms Trade in Opposition-controlled Syria: July 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 sixth 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, July 2021). After data has been collected for the whole of 2021, a full report will be released.

Key findings

  • July 2021 saw a significant drop in documented sales, resulting in the lowest total number of sales record within a month since this period of data recording began in December 2020;
  •  Fewer blank-firing pistols were offered for sale in July 2021 than in previous months; and
  • The decrease in munitions sales from June to July 2021 represents a return to the trend of previous months.

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 July 2021 two light weapons—both Breda-SAFAT heavy machine guns—were documented for sale.

Figure 1.1 Items contained in the July 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%), an increase of 13% from the June 2021 update (48%). Due to the large reduction in total documented sales, the number of documented rifles in July 2021 represents a 51% reduction from June 2021. Self-loading pistols were the second-most-common type of lethal-purpose small arm documented, constituting 33% of the documented sales. This marks a 6%  increase in the proportion of self-loading pistol sales as a share of lethal-purpose small arms from June 2021 (27%). Additionally, two hand-held machine guns, two heavy machine guns, three sub-machine guns, and one revolver were documented in the dataset.

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

Small Arms by Country of Origin

It was possible to identify the national origin of 87 of the 132 documented items. Of the documented small arms and blank-firing pistol sales, items of Turkish origin were the most common (16%), however all but one of the documented Turkish weapons were blank-firing pistols. Sales of Soviet origin were the second most prevalent (12%). Spanish (9%), Czech (8%), and Chinese (7%) weapons were the next most common. Weapons could be identified from 22 different countries.

Self-loading Rifles by Family

Of the 49 documented self-loading rifles offered for sale in July 2021, all could be identified by model or family. All but 5 of the 49 rifles were AK-family weapons (44 examples). AKM-series rifles were the most commonly documented self-loading rifles, constituting 43% of all of these weapons (21 examples). Three of the documented AK-family weapons were chambered for the 5.45 × 39 mm cartridge, the same number as last month. Other AK-family weapons included 10 Type 56-series rifles (Type 56, Type 56-1, and Type 56-2 models), two Tabuk rifles, one AKK rifle, one KLS rifle, three Zastava M70-series rifles (M70AB2, M70AB3, and M70AB3 models), one Type 2 AKS rifle, and one Type 3 AK rifle. Four Sa vz. 58-series rifles and one G3A4 rifle were also recorded.

Self-loading Pistols by Model

There were 50 documented sales of lethal-purpose self-loading pistols in July 2021, 15 fewer than were documented in June 2021. Nonetheless, this represents a 9% increase of in lethal-purpose pistol sales as a share of all small arms and blank-firing pistols sold this month when compared with June 2021. The TT-pattern ‘Tokarev’ (four examples), Llama-type 9 × 19 mm pistol (four examples), and craft-produced pistols (four examples), were the most commonly documented lethal-purpose self-loading pistols in July 2021.

Of the 18 blank-firing pistols documented, all but one were identifiable by model. The Turkish Lord T882 and Turkish Ekol Special 99 constituted 27% (5 examples) and 22% (4 Examples) of all recorded sales of blank-firing pistols, respectively. This month saw a significant drop in sales of blank-firing weapons in both proportional and absolute terms.

Individual Sales of Interest

J.P. Sauer Model 1913 Self-loading Pistol

Figure 2.1 A J.P. Sauer Model 1913 self-loading pistol chambered for the .32 ACP cartridge, offered for sale in Afrin, Aleppo in Syria in mid-July 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

The First World War-era J.P. Sauer Model 1913 self-loading pistol shown in Figure 2.1 appeared for sale on the Syrian online arms market in July 2021. The source of this weapon is unknown, as are the origins of many early-20th century weapons found in Syria today. Some examples of the J.P. Sauer Model 1913 may have been imported by a civilian enthusiast, supplied to a local force by an external government, or left behind in Syria by occupying foreign armed forces.

North Korean Type 68 Self-loading Rifle

Figure 2.2 A North Korean Type 68 self-loading rifle offered for sale in North-western Syria in mid-July 2021 (Source: ARES CONMAT Database).
Figure 2.3 Receiver and trunnion markings on a North Korean Type 68 rifle offered for sale in North-western Syria in mid-July 2021 (Source: ARES CONMAT Database).

One uncommon weapon documented this month was a North Korean Type 68 self-loading rifle offered for sale for 200 USD. The Type 68 is a North Korean copy of the AKM rifle. This weapon may have entered Syria during the 1970s, as part of a large supply of North Korean weapons which included small arms, light weapons (including anti-tank guided missiles and mortars), heavy weapons (including artillery guns and multiple-barrel rocket launchers), and ammunition. It is also possible that this rifle entered Syria as part of a more recent arms shipment, as North Korea has tried to export weapons and other military hardware into Syria as recently as 2014.

Italian Breda-SAFAT Heavy Machine Guns

Figure 2.4 Two Breda-SAFAT heavy machine guns offered for sale in North-western Syria in mid-July 2021 (Source: ARES CONMAT Database).

Two Italian Breda-SAFAT heavy machine guns (HMGs) were documented this month. These early-20th-century machine guns were designed to be used on the fighters, bombers, and other combat aircraft of the Italian air force and saw service during the Second World War. HMGs of this model have been previously observed within Syria fitted to Syrian Panzer IV Ausf. J tanks. These tanks were sold to Syria by France and Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. It is unknown if the tanks were sold to Syria already fitted with the Breda-SAFAT machine guns or if the weapons were sold separately and later fitted to the tanks by Syrian government forces.


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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