Beginning to Trace the Weapons of Bashar al-Assad.

If the photographs and witness accounts traveling out of Syria in recent days are authentic, then forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad have been firing 107-millimeter ground-to-ground rockets into populated areas. One of the duds said to be fired is in the frame at the top of this post. Its warhead is clearly visible, though its fuze appears to be missing.

These weapons are high-explosive, area-coverage weapons, typically fired from towed mobile launchers. By any reasonable standard, firing barrages of them into populated neighborhoods would constitute an indiscriminate attack.  The use of this particular weapon in the conflict should not surprise anyone who has followed the war or even casually observed the Syrian military over the years. Its presence matches some of the witness accounts, aligns with the photographic and video record, and matches as well the history of Syrian arms procurement, with its long emphasis on weapons compatible with those of the former Eastern bloc. 

(The 107 is an old-timer. If you would like background and information on some of its other recent uses, go herehere and here, in order. If you’re caught up already, or don’t want a head full of history and weapons detail, just keep reading.)

All of this has led to a natural run of questions that today I was pulled into via email, the telephone and Twitter. You know the questions before they get typed: Where did these rockets come from? When and how did they arrive in Syria?

These are good questions. The answers will matter. So it is important to get the answers right — something that cannot necessarily be done by identifying the nation that manufactured any individual unexploded 107-millimeter rocket found on the Syrian street and declaring the case closed.

Why?  Let’s just say, theoretically, that the rocket at the top of this post was manufactured in China. Several people have told me it was; I have not seen a clear image of its markings, so I will defer judgment on that for now. But for the sake of argument, let’s say it is in fact of Chinese provenance. Does that mean China sold it to Syria? No. Why not? The reasons are simple. The 107 is one of the world’s more abundant ground-to-ground rockets. China has made its contribution to this class, the Type 63, for several decades, and exported its stock widely. And this leaves open the possibility that third-party nations that received Chinese rockets long ago might have shipped rockets on to other purchasers, including the rockets fired into neighborhoods of late.

Here is an example of this game at work. We have documented “Chinese” munitions in Afghanistan, for example, that actually had passed many years in the possession of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania. These munitions were inherited by the post-Communist Republic of Albania, which in turn sold them by the planeload as an easy arms-for-cash commodity to Pentagon-sponsored arms dealers. The dealers then dumped them into Afghan hands, where, at a glance, a passing investigator might say they came from China. Well, sort of. Once upon a time. But certainly not directly.

Back to the uprisings and crackdowns in the Middle East. One feature of the recent coverage of the war in Syria has been the apparently high interest, even fascination, with identifying what weapons the pro-Assad forces have been bringing to bear on Syria’s population. It cheers everyone who helps out on this blog to see this. But as the weapons do get identified — which they will —  the next step will be to walk them back to their sources. This will be done in part through documents, whether through analysis of publicly-disclosed arms transfers and licenses or, in the field, via the examination of ordnance remnants, duds, abandoned stock and shipping containers and the papers and labels thereon and therein. 

The lower photographs at the top of this post show an unfired Type 63 107-millimeter rocket beside its shipping and storage crate. The stenciling on the rocket body and warhead, and the sticker on the crate, show these to be of Chinese manufacture. A look within the box might turn up more papers still.

These are the types of records that can assist field researchers in identifying and tracing arms. They can be imperfect, to be sure.  They are often incomplete. Sometimes the stenciling is deliberately false. (More on that in another post). Sometimes the records are misread. (There was a prominent example of that last year — the excitedly made claims that SA-24 MANPADS had been found in Libya.) But on balance these are a type of record that can allow careful researchers to flesh out a weapon’s journey, and point to its origins, its time and means of travel, and to information such as contract numbers, ports of embarkation and quantities shipped alongside a given crate.

All of this can help sketch out how a nation, in this case a nation that is firing high-explosive rockets into its own neighborhoods, acquired its killing tools.

As the violence intensifies, the questions will become more presssing. It will not be enough to know that a given weapon was manufactured in a given year in a given place during the Cold War. That kind of information will be interesting, at least to people like me. Much more important and of much broader use will be identifying exactly who provided it to Syria, and when. Imagine this: It would be one thing to show that a 107-millimeter rocket that hit a house in which civilians died was made in China. But what if it was shipped to Syria 25 years ago? It would be another to discover that it was shipped to Syria in recent months, after the bloody crackdown was under way.

All of this can be done. And yes, China is certainly a suspect in arming Syria, as are many other states. The trick now lies, as always, in the facts and details, to be assembled over time, one by one.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS

Top, sent here today from Syria, via Twitter. Bottom: Three views of a 107-millimeter rocket and its packaging. By the author. 2011. Libya.


Notes

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