On whose side is Belarus in the Syrian civil war?
On 7 September, the Israeli air force attacked the Syrian military’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre. According to the Times of Israel, Belarusians may have been among those working at the Centre.
Meanwhile, a Bulgarian hacker group recently published documents showing that Silk Way, an Azerbaijani airline that transports arms for Syrian opposition groups, directed some of its flights via Minsk. Concurrently, Russian and Polish media circulated reports of alleged arms deals between Minsk and sponsors of Syrian opposition groups for several millions euros.
Belarus thus is accused of supplying all sides in the Syrian civil war. But available evidence proves that Minsk is an indirect participant. Its involvement in the Syrian conflict as supplier of weapons is limited to working with intermediaries acting on behalf of Western countries and their allies.
Belarus has no missile technology for Damascus
On 15 September, the Times of Israel published an article about alleged defence cooperation between the Belarusian and Syrian governments. It quoted Ronen Solomon, an Israeli freelance intelligence analyst, saying there were Belarusians working at the Syrian military’s Scientific Studies and Research Center helping Damascus to improve its ballistic missiles.
However, the Syrian opposition website Zaman al-Wasl reported it was Russians, Iranians and North Koreans, who had worked at the bombed facility. Solomon told Times of Israel “that given the nature of the site and Russia’s interests in the region, it’s unlikely that Moscow would send experts to such a facility,” hence they should have been Belarusians.
He also insisted that “Belarus … is particularly skilled in improving existing missiles with better guidance systems … Belarusian companies … tout also their preparedness to sell technologies coveted by Hezbollah, like anti-aircraft systems, drones and shore-to-ship missiles.“
Belarus, however, has little to offer to Damascus in terms of missile technologies. and that little technology it itself acquired in the most recent years. Minsk inherited a great deal of military technologies from the Soviet Union, but has next to nothing to build missiles. In the early 2010s, it even had to ask the Chinese, and maybe also recruited some Ukrainians, to help assemble multiple–launch rocket systems. These types of systems are the most basic for a country intending to master missile technologies. Although this year Belarusian defence companies demonstrated something similar to short-range cruise or ballistic missile at a defence industry exhibition in Minsk, these are not the types of technologies that interest either Syria or its Iranian allies.
Moreover, even if Belarus had something to offer the Syrian government, that would be a doubtful deal for Belarus. Minsk knows these sorts of deals would hardly bring money from an embattled leader such as Assad. It would also undermine Belarusian relations with Assad’s opponents, particularly rich, Arab, conservative regimes.
A litany accusations
In 2012, The Atlantic, a respectable US media outlet, reported that Minsk might be trying to help Syria build fibre-optic gyroscopes for surface-to-surface missiles. No proof has ever been publicly presented.
Nonetheless, since 2012, the US Treasury has maintained sanctions on the Belarusian defence firm Belvneshpromservice (BVPS). The sanctions have been imposed for violating the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, which forbids supplying these states with any materials and equipment related to weapons of mass destruction or cruise or ballistic missiles.
It is not clear what triggered the imposition of US sanctions. Back in 2012, the media reported that the sanctions had been imposed for Minsk providing Syria with “fuses for general purpose aerial bombs.” But, in fact, it could have been for a deal with any of the three black-listed countries. Indeed, during that period Minsk is documented to have supplied radars to Iran.
Arms for Syrian opposition: How much did Minsk know?
Meanwhile, on 30 August, the Russian web–site EADaily published a lengthy piece on alleged Belarusian-supplied arms to the radical Syrian opposition. According to Russian journalists, “Deliveries were implemented through a chain of intermediaries, but Minsk cannot claim ignorance about the final recipients.”
The EADaily article was not the first report about Belarusian arms reaching Syrian opposition via the Balkans. As early as September 2015, American media outlet Buzzfeed revealed that a US contractor via a Bulgarian intermediary had bought 700 missiles for “Konkurs” anti-tank systems from Belarus. Moreover, the Buzzfeed article alleged that American instructors sent to teach Syrian opposition fighters how to use the systems had passed through Belarus en route to Syria.
This may just be the tip of the iceberg. In an official report, the Bulgarian Economics Ministry catalogued €37.8m in arms imports from Belarus to Bulgaria for 2015. In 2016, Belarusian arms imports rose to €84.2m.
Most of these deliveries were sent via Romania. This ensured the arms were subject to customs declaration. Therefore, according to official Romanian Foreign Ministry reports, Belarusian military exports to Bulgaria via Romania in 2015 not only included smoothbore arms with a calibre of more than 20mm, but also various arms with a calibre more than 12.7mm, and ammunition, missiles, artillery shells, and bombs. In 2016, the Romanian Foreign Ministry tracked imports of missile systems, artillery shells with a calibre of more than 122mm, RPG grenades, missiles, an armoured vehicle, and aircraft-cannon shells.
These shipments stand out, because before 2015 Belarus scarcely exported arms to Bulgaria. For instance, according to the Bulgarian Economics Ministry, in 2013 Bulgaria imported missiles, artillery shells and military electronic equipment from Belarus worth €411,000.
Arms from Belarus ensures alibis for sponsors of Syrian opposition
Of course, these accusatory reports are shtum about the final destination of the Belarusian arms. Bulgaria has no need for these weapons. Russian EADaily, furthermore, noticed that the exports from Belarus to Bulgaria coincide with the value of official Bulgarian exports of similar arms in similar quantities to the US and Saudi Arabia. It is most likely that the Belarusian arms went to the Syrian opposition.
Oddly enough, Bulgaria itself manufactures almost all the types of equipment and ammunition that it bought from Minsk. Such deals, however, make perfect sense, because Minsk still has these items left over from Soviet times. Such arms, if sent to Syria, would not attract much attention in a country that for many decades had bought Soviet arms.
Nonetheless, the situation is even more complicated. The arms might have gone from Bulgaria to various destinations outside Syria, as well. Hackers from the group Anonymous Bulgaria have recently published stolen documents from Azerbaijani airline company Silk Way. The documents appear to show the company has been transporting arms for the Syrian opposition. The documents also indicate Silk Way had flights originating from Minsk, but not heading for the Middle East. On 14 February, the company reportedly transported ammunition from Minsk via Bulgaria to Afghanistan.
In sum, Western and Russian media regularly speculate on Belarus’s alleged ties to various parties in the Syrian civil war. The secretive and relatively unknown Belarusian regime naturally attracts such accusations. In particular, this sort of speculation provides explanations for otherwise murky cases, like that of the Syrian missile centre.
In addition, accusations for alleged Belarusian assistance to either the Syrian government or to the opposition can be used as a political tool against Minsk.
If the allegations are proven, unscrupulous deals in such a conflict amount to a gross violation of international security regulations.The responses by more influential states or a global power like the US or Russia to such a violation would likely be much harsher than their reactions to human rights violations committed by Minsk.