A conflict that began in the political turmoil of the Arab Spring has morphed into a multi-sided war, fuelled by guns, bombs and ammunition from both far and wide. Millions of ordinary Syrians have seen their cities and homes destroyed and have been forced to flee as refugees from violence and deprivation.
Without the continuing supply of arms, particularly the larger munitions like artillery shells, explosives, rockets and bombs, all sides could not continue this war. Recent reports that Russia has stepped up its supply of military support to the Syrian government are nothing short of alarming.
Shipments of arms transferred through the black market to the opposition Free Syrian Army help them to continue fighting. The Al Qaeda-linked ISIS allegedly brought many of its arms from Iraq, where it also continues to wreck chaos. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia and Iran are the main arms suppliers to the Syrian government and Qatar and Saudi Arabia as the principle suppliers to opposition forces. Many arms have been smuggled from Lebanon and Turkey as well.
While the international community has been prepared to offer aid to refugees and internally displaced people, its efforts to end the bloodshed and resolve Syria’s crisis and put the needs of Syrian people first have been halting at best. Today, leaders from the Syrian government, opposition groups and the foreign ministers of around 30 countries are meeting to convene the Geneva II conference, where there is a glimmer of hope that a political process might be possible, even if many very significant hurdles remain. They must move forward now that this conflict has completely overwhelmed Syria and its neighboring countries.
However, a few vital questions are definitely not on the agenda – How are combatants getting their arms and ammunition? And how such supplies can be stopped as part of any peace deal?
There is only a small amount of weapons production inside Syria at present. The government had built stockpiles before the war. But without the ongoing flows of foreign weapons, the Syrian war simply could not continue at the same terrifying pace and scale it is now. The international community needs to tackle this problem urgently, a key part of the political process. Simply reducing the supply of arms would help and give more room for talks to succeed.
It has been suggested that local ceasefires, beginning with Aleppo, could be a product of the talks this week. Where local ceasefires are arranged, then the allies of warring parties need to be clear with their friends inside Syria: their arms must not be used to break these pacts. The circumstances of recent ceasefires have garnered some criticism. So far there has been little international involvement in the brokering or monitoring of deals to ensure all sides are upholding agreements. However, under the right conditions local ceasefires can provide the opportunity to ensure that civilians can access aid, create confidence-building measures, and a more conducive environment overall for negotiations between warring parties.
The people of Syria are suffering. They need the international community to control and end the supply of the guns, bullets and bombs that are causing so much death and destruction; they need help to bring peace to their country. It can be done if our governments have the political will to see it through.