This weapon is perfect for close-quarters combat, house to house," the Russian arms dealer explains, handing a silencer-equipped AK-104 assault rifle to a Syrian official, who brings the gun's sight to his eye and aims it across Pavilion C3 of Russia's biennial arms bazaar. Through the crosshairs, he can see the neon display of Rosoboronexport, Russia's state weapons dealer, which has given the Syrians a rare chance to do some military shopping. Most of the world has banned arms sales to the Syrian government amid the country's escalating civil revolt. So in Moscow the four-member Syrian delegation is enjoying the hospitality. After an hour with the Kalashnikov salesman, the Syrians stroll over to study some rocket launchers, cruise missiles and military SUVs, which gleam in the summer sun like sports cars at a dealership.
Welcome to Russia's premier weapons expo, the innocuously named Forum of Technologies in Machine Building, a military buffet that Russian President Vladimir Putin inaugurated two years ago. In the last week of June, delegations from 103 nations, including Iran, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Uganda, descended on Zhukovsky Airfield, near Moscow, to attend the expo. One noteworthy attraction: a "ballet" of twirling, smoke-belching tanks staged by a choreographer from the Bolshoi Theatre.
But the Syrians were not there to be entertained. Over the past 16 months, Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have used their Russian weaponry to hammer a homegrown rebellion, the most violent of the Arab Spring revolts. The U.N. estimates the death toll at more than 10,000, including thousands of women and children. And as Syria falls deeper into disarray, Assad's regime has continued to import Russian weaponry as part of long-standing deals between the two countries. According to CAST, a Russian military think tank, there are now about $4 billion in open weapons contracts between Russia and Syria, and even though Moscow has pledged not to sign any new deals with Damascus until the war ends, its existing agreements "will not be affected in any way," Anatoly Isaykin, the head of Rosoboronexport, tells TIME.
On the opposite side of the conflict, the disparate bands of rebels fighting to oust Assad are also receiving arms from abroad, making the Syrian crisis seem to many observers like a proxy conflict. Russia, the U.S. and Europe all have major stakes in the Syrian dilemma, as does almost every religious sect and ethnic clan in the Middle East. But with none of the foreign players willing to commit their troops, the means of engagement has been through an arms race. For the West and its Arab allies, supporting the rebels is a low-risk way to even out the battlefield just long enough to convince Assad to step down. For Russia and Iran, Assad's most powerful supporters, this tactic smacks of violent regime change.