Disrupting Atrocity Enablers

Maritime Arms Shipments from Russia to Syria

In its brutal crackdown on civilians, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria has committed mass atrocities. These crimes are not only a human rights catastrophe but also, as the Obama Administration says, a threat to U.S. national security. Yet American diplomatic efforts have failed to curb the violence.

This case study offers the United States government a valuable tool that it could and should use to try to save lives in Syria and protect its own national security interests. Historically, those seeking to stop the worst human rights abuses have focused on the perpetrators. But mass atrocities are not mere spasms of violence; they are organized crimes requiring infrastructure, planning, and resources. Perpetrators therefore depend on support from third parties—what we call “enablers.”

As part of a broad strategy to halt atrocities in Syria, the United States can more systematically target the weapons flowing into the country. Syrian’s top supplier of weapons is Russia, via RosOboronExport (ROE), a state-run intermediary agency. This study examines the supply chains that have shipped weapons, ammunition, spare parts, and repaired items from Russia to Syria. It focuses on three shipments:

1. The Chariot, which arrived in Syria in January 2012, reportedly carrying nearly 60 tons of explosives

2. The Professor Katsman, which arrived in Syria in May 2012, carrying rotor blades and, possibly, other munitions

3. The Alaed, temporarily halted in June 2012, reportedly carrying refurbished attack helicopters and munitions

These three shipments are the rare ones that attracted international attention. Given the large volume of cargo vessels routinely traveling to Syria— in the first seven months of 2012, over 200 arrived in the port of Tartous alone—and the vast regulatory shortcomings that allow shipments to remain opaque, these likely represent only a fraction of the resources the Syrian regime has received by sea.

In cataloging the supply chains, this study identifies numerous actors and “choke points” where the United States and other governments should apply pressure to cut off the weapons flow. Although a weak regulatory framework provides cover to illicit shipments, the United States still has the capacity to track and stop them. To be successful, however, it must implement a systematic, whole-government approach. Our primary recommendations:

  • The U.S. Treasury Department should reimpose sanctions on RosOboronExport and impose sanctions on other enablers of atrocities in Syria.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense should void its contracts with RosOboronExport and suspend the enterprise from contractor and subcontractor eligibility.
  • The U.S. State Department should share information with foreign governments sufficient to systematically interdict and halt arms shipments to Syria.
  • Legal entities bound by existing sanctions on Syria should institute measures to confirm their business practices do not contravene these sanctions.
  • Ship owners, charterers, managers, cargo owners, and marine insurers should comply with international norms governing business and human rights by exercising due diligence and not enabling atrocities in Syria.
  • The Atrocities Prevention Board should actively and systematically identify and track enablers at early warning stages and in response to ongoing atrocities.

While this study focuses on weapons flowing from Russia to Syria, it reveals the potential impact of efforts to crack down on “enabling” shipments. These same supply chains and their analogs may also facilitate the transfer of weapons from other countries to Syria, or to other areas victimized or threatened by mass atrocities. International criminal networks also use these supply chains to ship weapons to outlaw regimes and non-state actors. Policymakers can, moreover, use these tracking and disrupting tactics across geographic contexts and at any time these tools apply, not just after crises have erupted but also before they begin and as they escalate.


Published on July 31, 2012


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