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Bloodbath in Syria: Wherefrom the Weapons?

25 January 2016
Photo from scud attack in Aleppo, 26.02.13
This is what the aftermath of a ballistic missile attack looks like. This picture was taken on the morning of 26 February 2013, the daybreak after the attack. The devastating impact of this missile on the centre of al Ard al-Hamra – a working class Aleppo district – is clear from these images. All the buildings were destroyed and dozens of people were killed – many more were buried underneath the rubble. The city had already endured months of shelling, but this destruction was caused by a much more powerful weapon, and this was the latest missile attack on al Ard al-Hamra in just a few days. Between 18–22 February 2013 three more ballistic missiles hit this neighbourhood, killing at least 160 people, injuring hundreds and leaving everyone who survived homeless. Photo Credit: INEW/ Hannah Smith.

The war in Syria has killed over 250,000 people and injured more than one million since 2011. Over 53% of civilian deaths are caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Those fighting on all sides of the conflict use mortars, rockets, and bombs in towns, cities, and villages, which kills civilians, destroys infrastructure, and generates the refugee crisis we see today. More than 11.6 million people are in urgent need of clean water and nearly ten million do not have enough to eat. Nearly 12 million people are refugees or internally displaced.

Syria is awash with weapons. Ranging from small arms to anti-aircraft rockets to air-dropped bombs, the bloodbath is fueled by the easy availability of weapons looted from caches in Iraq; transferred directly to specific parties by other countries; or diverted from those transfers to unintended recipients.

This is must be an issue of key concern at the peace talks that are supposed to begin soon in Geneva. One of the largest impediments to peace in Syria is the continuing transfer of weapons to all sides of the conflict. This issue demands critical attention at this round of talks—if profits continue to be made from the war through the sale of weapons, ammunition, and other military equipment, the war will continue.

It is difficult to trace when some weapons being used in the conflict were transferred and from which country. It is even more difficult, in some cases, to identity specific models of some weapon systems and thus the producer of those weapons. However, WILPF’s Disarmament programme, Reaching Critical Will, has undertaken to track some of these weapons from their use in Syria back to their manufacturers. We do so in order to highlight the companies that are contributing to the ongoing conflict, whether the weapons being used are new or old, whether they were transferred decades ago or recently.

Syrian military

Most of the Syrian military’s weapons originally came from the Soviet Union or the former Yugoslavia. Now the government mostly receives weapons from Russia and Iran. It uses the state budget to fund its arms imports – thus the government is using the tax money of the very people it is targeting to finance the weapons it uses against them.

Dozens of companies in Russia have produced the weapons being used by the Syrian military today. Almaz-Antey Air Defense Concern produces the Buk medium-range land-based missile system and S-200 long-range surface-to-air missiles. Bazalt produces RPG-29 rocket-propelled grenades. The Degtyarev plant produces 9M119 Svir anti-tank guided missiles, 9M133 Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, KPV heavy machine guns, and Kord-12.7mm heavy machine guns. JSC Defense systems, a Russian-Belarusian company, produces S-125 Neva/Pechora surface-to-air missile systems and S-300PMU air defence systems.

The Defense Industries Organisation (DIO) of Iran has provided the Syrian army with M40 recoilless rifles, which are anti-tank guns. Many seem to have also ended up in the hands of opposition groups. The DIO also provided the Syrian army with AM50 anti-materiel rifles. These were originally exported to Iran from the Austrian company Steyr-Mannlicher in 2006. Iran then cloned the rifles and shipped them to the Syrian army. The DIO also produces and supplies the armour-piercing incendiary bullets fired by the rifles. Meanwhile, the Aerospace Industries Organisation of Iran has provided the Syrian military with Toophan anti-tank missiles, which is a reverse-engineered copy of the US military BGM-71 TOW missile.

Syrian opposition

Transfers to the Syrian opposition often follow a more circuitous route to their recipients. For example, several opposition groups including Al-Asala Watanmya, Daraa Revolution Commission, Durou al-Thawra, and Kataib al-Qasas use FN-6 shoulder-fired missiles. These are produced by the China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation. Qatar purchased these weapons from an unknown seller, which some investigators believe to be the Sudanese government. Qatar then transferred the FN-6s, via Turkey, to opposition groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.

These are not the only weapons thought to have come from China via Sudan. The Sudanese government is also thought to have sold Chinese-made anti-materiel sniper rifles and anti-tank missiles to Syrian opposition groups. In addition, Sudanese-made 7.62×39-millimeter ammunition has been used by Soquor al-Sham, a group that recognises the Syrian National Coalition’s military command.

Some of the Syrian opposition’s weapons seem to have come from Croatian stockpiles. In 2012, Saudi Arabia is thought to have financed the purchase of thousands of rifles and hundreds of machine guns, rocket and grenade launchers, and ammunition for opposition fighters from a Croatian-controlled stockpile of former Yugoslav weapons.

Some weapons also seem to have come directly from the United States. In April 2014, Syrian opposition groups supported by the West said they received about a dozen BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles, which were produced by the Hughes Aircraft Company (now part of General Motors). Other weapons used by the Syrian opposition groups are Russian or US-made and seem to have been looted from various caches or retransferred from other countries. Russian company KB Mashinostroyeniya makes many of the man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) used by various opposition groups. Several groups also use the MILAN anti-tank missile system produced by Euromissile in France.

Islamic State

Meanwhile, Islamic State (IS), according to a comprehensive report from Amnesty International, uses weapons designed or manufactured by more than 25 countries. The bulk of these arms and ammunition were seized from Iraqi military stocks. IS has also gained access to weapons from other sources, in particular from the capture or sale of Syrian military stocks and arms supplied to armed opposition groups in Syria by countries including Turkey, the Gulf states, and the United States. IS fighters are now equipped with large stocks of mainly AK variant rifles, but also US military issue M16, Chinese CQ, German Heckler & Koch G3 and Belgian FN Herstal FAL type rifles. In addition, IS has captured more sophisticated equipment, such as guided anti-tank missiles (Russian Kornet and Metis systems, Chinese HJ-8, and European MILAN and HOT missiles), and surface-to-air missiles (Chinese FN-6s).

Arms transfers and peace talks

The arming of all sides to this conflict reflects and perpetuates the ongoing militaristic approach to conflict and international relations. The range and quantity of weapons available to those taking up arms to kill in Syria is a product of decades of arms transfers to the region and failures by the US-led occupation of Iraq to manage arms deliveries and stockpiles. These weapons represent billions of dollars spent on technologies of war over decades rather than on peacebuilding, development, and human rights.

The peace talks must take a different approach. They must confront the ongoing transfer of weapons to all parties in the conflict, using the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty as a basis for action. They must also involve the effective participation of parties who have not taken up arms against each other. Nonviolent actors, including women’s groups, have so far been largely excluded from Syria peace process efforts. This approach must change in order to facilitate a new, nonviolent, effective, community-driven, and sustainable peace process.

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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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