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 President Vladimir Putin, who was then Prime Minister, 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 with ties to the Ministry of Defense, 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 whose lines of patronage stretch not only to Moscow but across the Arab world and all the way to Washington. Russia, the U.S. and Europe all have major stakes in the Syrian struggle, as does almost every religious sect and ethnic clan in the Middle East, and they are all lining up behind one side or another. But with none of the foreign players willing to commit 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 persuade Assad to step down. For Russia and Iran, Assad's most powerful supporters, this tactic smacks of violent regime change.
The stalemate has allowed more weapons to flow into Syria increasing the chances that this bloody internal conflict will morph into a full-scale civil war, with regional and international forces backing opposing sides. "This is a proxy war," Sergei Ordzhonikidze, a Russian diplomat, told TIME after returning to Moscow from Damascus in July. It harks back to the tradition of Cold War détente, he says, when the nuclear superpowers "avoided direct confrontation while advancing their interests through third countries."
U.S. officials reject the notion that the U.S. is involved in a conflict with Russia in Syria. Washington is moving more subtly than its old Cold War adversary. In the past few months, the U.S. State Department has worked to establish relationships with opposition groups and is planning to open an office in Istanbul to vet them for possible ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, Administration and congressional sources say. On July 6, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged not to leave the rebel fighters hanging, even if the U.S. continues to avoid direct arms sales, let alone military intervention. "The United States will continue providing nonlethal assistance to help those inside Syria who are carrying the fight," she said at a meeting on the crisis in Paris. That assistance has included communications equipment and training. Meanwhile, countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are providing weapons or funds for them, U.S. sources say. An official at the Saudi embassy in Washington declined to comment; officials from the Qatari and Emirati embassies did not respond to repeated requests for comment. No government has openly acknowledged supplying the rebels with weapons.