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In recent years the Syrians have become increasingly good customers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which gets its data on the arms trade from open sources, Syria increased its arms purchases almost sixfold over the past five years, and at least 78% of those weapons came from Russia, the world's second largest arms dealer, after the U.S.
Stoking the Inferno
Just across the border from Syria, along a desolate stretch of the Mediterranean coast, one of North Lebanon's leading arms traffickers runs his business out of what looks like a repurposed seafood restaurant. Metal shutters are pulled down over the large plate-glass windows. Inside, Abu Saddam has just gotten off the phone. About two hours ago, he says, he sent a big shipment of weapons to the rebel group the Free Syrian Army. "The FSA is like hell," he says. "The more you put fire into it, the more it asks for."
Over the past couple of months, he says, he has shipped several million dollars' worth of heavy weapons to Syria. The FSA, which Abu Saddam and other sources say is funded by wealthy Saudi, Qatari, Emirati and Syrian individuals, among others, is buying increasingly deadly weapons. "They want thermals," says Abu Saddam, meaning heat-seeking missiles. He tells one of his men to open an armored metal door tucked behind a tattered curtain. His employee pulls out a couple of mortar rounds, then some SAMs. The weapons come from Libya, he explains, shipped across the Mediterranean.
Among the nonstate actors contributing to the Syrian arms buildup are Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been among the most active in supporting the rebels. Molham Aldrobi, an executive member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a founding member of the Syrian National Council, a coalition of opposition groups, says the Brotherhood has been providing "all kinds of support," from logistics and financial aid to weapons. "We're trying to get anything that is more efficient and more effective in this struggle against Bashar," Aldrobi tells TIME from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, where he lives.
In the Russian analysis, the West is trying to control the flow of arms to the rebels. That makes it hard for the Russians to stay on the sidelines while, in their eyes, the West carves up another region of the world. The longer Russia continues defending Syria, however, the greater international pressure Russia comes under. In July, Clinton said the world should make Russia "pay a price" for standing by Assad--and the frequent reports of Syrian troops torturing and massacring civilians are regularly thrown in Russia's face. This presents an image problem, says Rosoboronexport's Isaykin. "Around these hot spots, efforts are made to present our organization as some kind of evil genius who is trying to pour kerosene on the fire," Isaykin tells Time at the Moscow arms bazaar, which his company helped organize and sponsor.
In April, Human Rights Watch informed Isaykin in an open letter that Assad's use of Russian arms puts his firm "at a high risk of complicity" in war crimes. But, he says, Rosoboronexport has every intention of fulfilling its multibillion-dollar contracts with the Syrian government as long as Assad can pay the bills. "None of these events will influence our relationships with our traditional markets in any way," Isaykin says.