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Weapons trade

March 19, 2012

According to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the volume of international arms transfers has increased in the last five years, raising political and ethical questions.

Egyptian demonstrators protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square next to a tank
Countries like Egypt are keen on new weaponsImage: picture alliance/landov

Conflicts like the one in Syria show that weapons are not always used for purely defense-related purposes. The country's authorities have been using tanks, fighter jets and missiles against those involved in the anti-government uprising.

"The problem is that a lot of military equipment can be used for that purpose," explained Pieter Wezeman, a Middle East expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). "So even something like radar can be used to monitor the movements of demonstrators."

On Monday, SIPRI issued its latest report on arms transfers around the world, noting that the volume of international transfers of major conventional weapons was 24 percent higher in the period from 2007 to 2011 than in 2002 to 2006. The main recipient region was Asia and Oceania, accounting for 44 percent of imports. Europe was in second place with 19 percent of imports, followed by the Middle East with 17 percent.

Contributing to conflict

According to UN estimates, some 8,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began one year ago - many of them with Russian weapons. In the last five years, the Syrian regime imported 78 percent of its military equipment from Russia, 17 percent from Belarus and five percent from Iran. Syria's imports of major weapons increased by 580 percent in the 2007 to 2011 period compared to 2002 to 2006.

A Syrian refugee girl stands next to the Turkish Red Crescent tents at the Boynuyogun refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province
Russia supplies most of Syria's military equipmentImage: REUTERS

Russia opposes a proposed UN embargo against Syria and is suspected of having further increased the exports to the country since the conflict began. According to Wezeman, the country justifies its position by claiming that Syria needs the weapons to defend itself from outside threats. That can be interpreted, he said, to mean that Russia doesn't want to see an intervention like in Libya.

In March last year, the UN Security Council passed a resolution sanctioning the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya and the use of "all means necessary" to protect the country's civilians. In response, NATO provided abundant support to the rebels, contributing significantly to the fall of Moammar Gadhafi's regime. During those battles, the Libyan government forces used weapons, which, according to SIPRI, had been purchased earlier from countries like the UK and France.

When the revolt in Libya began, many countries realized that exporting weapons to the country wasn't "such a good idea," said Wezeman, but points out that the Arab Spring has had little effect on weapons transfers in the region. According to the report, Egypt had no problems sourcing military equipment, including M1A1 tanks from the US during the last five years and tanks produced under German license were used against demonstrators last year.

EU's relaxed stance

Even countries which have not been part of the Arab Spring as yet, but which may see mass protests in the future, are being supplied with weapons, notes Wezeman, giving Algeria and Saudi Arabia as examples. Algeria sources its weapons, including tanks, from Germany.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has just closed its biggest weapons deal of the last two decades: the Saudi government is buying 84 new and 70 modernized fighter jets from the US for $29 billion (22 billion euros). The purchase of more than 200 German Leopard 2 tanks is also being considered - a deal which, according to unconfirmed reports, was approved by the Federal Security Council last summer.

"The question is how risk-averse you want to be as an exporter," said Mark Bromley, a researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Program. "The way the export criteria are drafted in Europe, it's all about how the weapons systems are likely to be used, which can set a rather high bar in terms of the amount of proof you need. It's not about how the weapons could be used but how they are likely to be used."

Bromley adds that as the world's third largest weapons exporter, Germany has had a more cautious approach to the matter than other European countries, especially when it comes to the Middle East.

A Leopard 2 tank
Germany is the world's third largest weapons exporterImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Krauss-Maffei Wegmann

"Of course, Germany has a stronger focus on Israeli security, so the question whether or not these weapons could potentially threaten Israel has been entrenched in German thinking," he said.

Some observers see this as Germany's motive for selling tanks to Saudi Arabia. The country could contribute to keeping Iran, Israel's archenemy, at bay.

However, according to Wezeman, regardless of where exported weapons end up, the supply of arms to undemocratic powers is a problematic issue.

"Any arms you supply to a country can be considered a signal of support by the recipient," said Wezeman. "If you supply weapons to a dictator, the dictator will of course believe that in principle you are ok with him."

Author: Dennis Stute / ew
Editor: Holly Fox