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

Key findings

  • May 2021 reflected the highest number of sales recorded within a month since this period of data recording began in December 2020;
  • More light weapons were offered for sale in May 2021 than in previous months, including an 82 mm mortar;
  • Unlike all previous months during this period of data recording, no AK-103 self-loading rifles were documented for sale during May 2021; and
  • As with previous months, a large proportion of small arms sales were of blank-firing pistols.

Describing the Dataset

Item by Class

In May 2021, 398 sales of small arms, munitions, and blank-firing pistols were recorded by ARES. This represents a significant rise in sales—by nearly 100— when compared to April 2021 (304) and March 2021 (289). Indeed, May 2021 accounts for the highest number of documented sales of any month since ARES began the current period of monitoring in December 2020. Relative to previous months, there was also a modest increase in documented light weapons sales. Four sales of light weapons were documented in May 2021, including two RPG-7-type shoulder-fired recoilless weapons, one 40 × 46SR mm handheld grenade launcher, and one M69A-type 82 mm mortar.

Figure 1.1 Items contained in the May 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 (48%), a reduction of 16% from the April update (64%). Self-loading pistols were the second-most-common type of small arm documented, constituting 41% of documented sales. This represents an increase of 10% from April 2021 (30%). Additionally, seven manually operated (pump-action and break-open) shotguns, five semi-automatic shotguns, seven handheld machine guns, and four sub-machine guns were documented in the dataset.

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

Small Arms by Country of Origin

It was possible to identify the national origin of 269 of the 360 documented small arms and blank-firing pistol sales. Weapons of Turkish origin were the most common (41%), however all but two of the documented Turkish weapons were blank-firing pistols. No other nations were represented particularly significantly in the data—indeed, only Chinese (7%), Czech (5%), and Belgian (6%) weapons constituted 5% or more of the dataset when blank-firing pistols were included in the analysis. When only lethal-purpose weapons are considered, these nations remain dominant. Only weapons of Russian (including Soviet) origin represent a greater percentage. Weapons could be identified from 22 different countries.

Self-loading Rifles by Family

Of the 92 documented self-loading rifles offered for sale in May 2021, 91 could be identified by model. All but 21 of the 92 rifles were AK-family weapons (71 examples). AKM-series rifles were the most commonly documented self-loading rifles, constituting 27% of all of these weapons (25 examples). Eight of the documented AK-family weapons were chambered for the 5.45 × 39 mm cartridge—three more than documented in April 2021. Additionally, eight Sa vz. 58-series rifles, three Zastava M70AB2 model rifles, two Tabuk rifles, two SKS-type rifles, one M16A1, one FN Herstal FAL,  and one CETME Model C were recorded. One PSL and one SVD precision self-loading rifle were also recorded. Interestingly, despite the significant dataset for May 2021, no AK-103 series rifles were documented. Consistent with previous reporting, Sa vz. 58-series rifles commanded low prices relative to AK-family weapons.

Self-loading Pistols by Model

There were 85 documented sales of lethal-purpose self-loading pistols in May 2021, 25 more than in April 2021. The FN Herstal Hi-Power-pattern (17 examples), PM-pattern ‘Makarov’ (13 examples), and TT-pattern ‘Tokarev’ (12 examples) pistols were the three most-commonly documented lethal-purpose self-loading pistols in May 2021.

Of the 152 blank-firing pistols documented in May 2021, all but two were identifiable by model. The Turkish Aksa Silah AK15 model and the Turkish Lord T822 were the most common blank-firing pistols, representing 22% (33 examples) and 21% (32 examples) of the total, respectively. This is the first time that any blank-firing pistol has been documented in greater numbers than the Lord T822.

Individual Sales of Interest

Converted Blank-firing Pistols

Figure 2.1 An Aksa Silah AK15 blank-firing pistol which has been converted to live-fire and experienced a catastrophic failure (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

In many countries around the world, blank-firing weapons are commonly converted to fire lethal-purpose ammunition. ARES has documented this phenomenon in conflict zones and non-conflict zones, and in both developed and developing countries. This practice is also common in Syria, where many blank-firing pistols are converted locally by individuals and small organised groups. Converted blank-firing pistols offer an affordable alternative to factory-made, lethal-purpose self-loading pistols. Whereas a factory-made Glock 19 Gen 3 may cost up to 2,800 USD in Syria, a blank-firing pistol converted to fire lethal-purpose ammunition—and visually resembling a Glock product—may be obtained for less than 100 USD. Given the scarcity of factory-made pistols in Syria, blank-firing weapons are also significantly more readily available. In May, around 40% of the documented sales were of blank-firing handguns (converted or not).

The types of blank-firing pistols found in Syria typically share many characteristics with lethal-purpose weapons—the primary difference is found in their barrels. In a blank-firing pistol, one or more metal rods or other obstructions block the barrel to prevent projectiles from passing through, whilst allowing the gasses generated when firing a blank cartridge to escape. The conversion of a blank-fire pistol to fire lethal-purpose ammunition generally requires the replacement of this blocked barrel, often with a length of (unrifled) steel tubing or a shortened length of barrel from a conventional firearm, such as an AK-pattern rifle. Because blank-firing pistols are almost invariably made of cheaper, lower-strength materials, they are frequently incapable of withstanding the pressure generated by firing 9 × 19 mm or .45 ACP ammunition (see Figures 2.1 & 2.2; this example, whilst not offered for sale, was posted as a warning). As a result, converted pistols are frequently chambered for less-powerful cartridges, including .380 ACP and .32 ACP.

Figure 2.2 The chamber of the badly-damaged converted Lord T822 blank-firing pistol (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

Modernised RPD Light Machine Gun

Figure 2.3 A modernised RPD light machine gun offered for sale in North-western Syria in May 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

This 1940s-era Soviet light machine gun (see Figure 2.3) has been modified locally in Syria. Whilst many of the original parts remain on the weapon, most of the furniture has been replaced, using polymer components incorporating accessory rails. The weapon now features an AR-style stock and buffer tube, an AKM-style pistol grip, and a handguard with multiple ‘Picatinny’-type accessory rails. Several ancillary devices have been fitted to the weapon, including an EOTech-style sight, a vertical foregrip, a bipod, and a compensator-type muzzle device. Another accessory rail and an AK-pattern rear sight have been welded to the weapon’s top cover, and the front sight has been moved rearward and mounted to the gas block. This conversion was likely done primarily for cosmetic purposes, as RPD weapons are rarely used on the region’s battlefields. Similar conversions have been documented in Iraq.

Turkish MKE Tba-6R1 Grenade Launcher

Figure 2.4 A Turkish MKEK Tba-6R1 40 × 46SR mm grenade launcher offered for sale in North-western Syria in May 2021 (source: ARES CONMAT Database).

Grenade launchers are relatively uncommon on Syrian black markets, although shoulder-fired, multi-shot grenade launchers—most commonly revolver-type designs—have been documented extensively in the Syrian conflict. Most of these appear to be of Bulgarian, Chinese, or Croatian origin. The example pictured in Figure 2.4, however, was produced in Turkey by the state-owned Makina ve Kimya Endüstrisi Kurumu (MKE). The MKE Uzun Tamburalı Bombaatar (‘Long Drum Grenade Launcher’; Tba-6R1) is of fairly conventional design, with a spring-powered revolver-type magazine loaded with six 40 × 46SR mm cartridges. The Tba-6R1 pictured appears to be missing the standard-issue optical sight, and the tan colouration differs from the black shown in MKE’s catalogues. Turkey has directly supplied several Syrian rebel groups with arms for a number of years, and this weapon may be an indicator of such supply.

Sources

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

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

Ferguson, Jonathan & N.R. Jenzen-Jones. 2017. Conversion of Blank-firing and Deactivated Firearms. Unpublished research note. Perth: Armament Research Services (ARES).

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>.

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

Al-Khalidi, Suleiman. 2019. ‘Turkey sends weapons to Syrian rebels facing Russian-backed assault: Syrian sources’. Reuters. Digital edition: 25 May. <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-idlib-idUSKCN1SV0FA>.

Makina ve Kimya Endüstrisi Kurumu (MKE). n.d. ‘40 mm Uzun Tamburalı Bombaatar’. <https://www.mkek.gov.tr/tr/product.aspx?id=52&source=Products&pid=1006>.

Shanley, Jack & Mick F. 2021. Analysing the Online Arms Trade in Opposition-controlled Syria. Research Note 11. Perth: Armament Research Services (ARES). <https://armamentresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/ARES-Research-Note-11-Analysing-the-Arms-Trade-in-Opposition-controlled-Syria-1.pdf>.

Silah Report. ‘V21: Marwan the Iraqi Gunsmith’. Podcast episode: 4 April 2020. <https://silahreport.com/2020/04/04/v21-marwan-the-iraqi-gunsmith/>.


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