Weapons imports to Syria surged nearly sevenfold over the last decade, according to a new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute that tracks arms transfers around the globe.
The institute estimated that Syria imported $152 million worth of weapons between 2002 and 2006, and that that figure grew to more than $1 billion in the last five years as measured in 1990 dollars.
The increase in weapons imports has overlapped in part with the bloodiest of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings. It is estimated that more than 10,000 people have been killed in the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, including opposition fighters, government forces and civilians.
Much of the weaponry delivered to Syria, such as air defense systems and anti-ship missiles, has no direct use in the clashes with rebels, but could help the regime defend itself against outside intervention, researcher Pieter Wezeman told the Associated Press.
“They increase the risks involved in and therefore the threshold for foreign military intervention like the NATO operation against the Kadafi regime” in Libya, Wezeman said.
Arms imports to Syria have peaked in the last two years, in the year before and after the rebellion began, the report shows. Despite the dramatic increase, Syria still ranked 25th in weapons imports last year, far below major recipients such as India, Pakistan and South Korea.
The vast majority of the weapons headed to Syria have come from Russia, the report finds, an Assad ally that has blocked international action against his regime.
Global debate has swirled over whether the U.S. and other powers opposed to Assad should arm the rebels fighting against him. Smugglers recently told The Times that the black market for weapons for Syrian rebels had nearly dried up, with supplies dwindling as the demand intensifies.
The United Nations has condemned the Assad regime for killings and torture during its crackdown on the uprising, but the rebels have also been criticized by Human Rights Watch for alleged kidnappings, torture and executions of security personnel and civilians.
Beyond Syria, the report found that weapons transfers from country to country jumped 24% between 2002-2006 and 2007-2011, with dramatic increases in imports in Venezuela, Morocco and Uganda. The U.S. remained the biggest exporter of arms around the world, followed by Russia and Germany.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: An image from a video uploaded on YouTube last week allegedly shows a Syrian army checkpoint in the Damascus suburb of Saqba. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images