In 2022 the world’s attention has shifted from the ill-fated Middle East to the Eastern Europe. The Ukrainian crisis quickly became the hottest topic with a full-scale war unfolding on the European continent. While analysts and politicians regarded these two conflicts as separate, figures of the criminal underworld saw a unique opportunity for business – and the two conflicts started to converge in unpredictable and dangerous ways.
One niche this unlikely connection manifested itself in is weapons smuggling. There have been multiple reports about Western-made weapons making their way from Ukraine to European countries, such as Sweden, Denmark and Netherlands. Apparently, the smugglers cast a wide net, as speculation has been rife for months that arms intended for the Ukrainian armed forces ended up in the hands of the Syrian oppositions fighters.
In Syria, the usual marketplace for weapons is a myriad of anonymous Telegram channels. Ads offering handguns, grenades and even turret machine guns are posted there almost daily, with pictures and videos provided as proof of possession. However, one video posted on the Idlib Weapons Market channel (now deleted) was not like the others. It showed a neat row of Western-made ATGMs in mint condition. The price was significantly below the market – $5,000 for Spanish Matador, $20,000 for Swedish-American NLAW and $25,000 for US Javelin. Moreover, the dealer promised that the next batch will include anti-aircraft weapons highly sought after by armed factions in the region. As it is the norm in the Syrian black market, the anonymous seller posted his ad on multiple Telegram channels, including one named Gaza Weapons Market.
It should be mentioned that reports about Western weapons supplied to Ukraine appearing in Europe were later downplayed or completely refuted by national security services. However, in Syria there is no security agency capable of tracking weapons inside the country divided into government controlled areas and statelets run by the Kurds, Turkey-backed Syrian National Army and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorists. Naturally, once in Syria, military equipment can be smuggled outside. Under these circumstances the arrival of advanced weaponry constitutes a direct threat for the neighboring states, including Israel. Furthermore, this threat can be divided into three sub-threats and they are as follows:
Modern weapons transported to Gaza
Among the channels where the Syrian arms dealer published his ad was one named Gaza Weapons Market. Does it mean that he had a way to transport weapons into Gaza strip? It is essential to understand here that the main goal of the seller is to gain profit. It would be reckless for a dealer willing to sell smuggled weaponry costing thousands of dollars to make a post in a Gaza-oriented channel without a secured transportation route. Putting information in the open could create unnecessary attention from both competitors and Western security services. Also, since Gaza is closely monitored by Israel, Palestinians are willing to pay top dollar for the delivery of exclusive goods. Therefore, the arms dealer will go an extra mile to make the transaction happen.
Iran and Hezbollah getting their hands on advanced weapons
Iran and Hezbollah do not hide their intention to acquire weapons capable of hurting Israeli military. The latest show of force by Tehran featured locally-made drones and ballistic missiles claimed to be able to reach Tel Aviv and Haifa in under four minutes. Iranian leadership would not miss an opportunity to reverse-engineer modern Western ATGMs. Iranian knock-offs in turn would be supplied to Hezbollah in Lebanon to carry out attacks on the Israeli borders or within the territory of Jewish state.
Anti-aircraft weapons reaching armed factions in Syria
Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict opposition groups have been vocal about lack of anti-aircraft weapons or MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defence Systems). Despite their pleading, the Western backers of the opposition drew a line at supplying the militants with MANPADS, fearing proliferation of these sensitive weapons and attacks on civilian aircraft.
This stance corresponds to Israel’s interests. Israel Air Forces regularly struck sensitive targets located inside Syria, primarily Iranian warehouses and arms depots, using Lebanese air space. In the past few months these operations saw a sharp increase. Iran is likely to move its facilities further inland, creating the need for Israeli jets to fly over Syria itself. While Israeli intelligence keeps a close eye on Gaza strip and Lebanon, Idlib and other areas of Syria controlled by the militants may turn out to be more challenging grounds to track potential threats and access the risks for the pilots.
Along with direct security threats there are political issues affecting the status quo in the region. Within the framework of the so-called grain deal and Erdogan posing as a mediator in Ukraine-Russia talks, Russia and Turkey have solidified their bilateral relations. Analysts even speculate that Moscow promised Ankara some concessions on the Syrian case, like a green light for Turkish military operation in Northern Syria.
If Russian leadership starts to lean towards Turkey as its main ally in the region, it would undermine Israel’s authority as a key player. While Israel and Russia have been able to find common ground on the most issues, the relationship with Turkey remained shaky until the recent thaw with Erdogan’s government. Ultimately, Russia-Turkey rapprochement would affect the Palestinian agenda, Golan Heights issue, and, possibly, even the intelligence exchange mechanisms.
Ahmad al-Khaled is a Syrian journalist covering the Syrian conflict and the Middle East in general.