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UK arms exports to Syria (2012-2022)

Country Overview

Syria is a country located in the Middle East. In recent years, the country has been embroiled in a long and devastating civil war. The war began as a series of protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, but quickly turned violent after the government used force to suppress the protests.

The conflict escalated over time and grew more complex, with various rebel groups and factions joining the fight as well as other states joining as proxies. The rise of the Islamic State (IS) group added a new dimension to the conflict, as it seized large parts of the country and carried out brutal attacks on civilians.

The war has taken a heavy toll on the people of Syria, with over half a million killed and millions forced to flee their homes. The country’s infrastructure has been severely damaged, and the economy has been crippled by the conflict.

The international community has been involved in efforts to end the conflict, with numerous rounds of peace talks and ceasefires. However, the situation remains complex and the conflict continues to rage on.

As of early 2023, President Assad remains in power, but large parts of the country are under the control of various rebel groups and foreign powers. The humanitarian situation in the country is dire, with many Syrians facing ongoing violence, displacement, and poverty.

How many licenses for the sale of arms to Syria did the UK government issue between 2012 and 2022? 

During the decade 2012-2022, the UK sold the Syrian government 23 limited and 26 unlimited arms export licenses.

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

The entire value of military arms licenses exported from the United Kingdom to Syria during the last decade was £1,3 million. Exports were interrupted in 2013 and no values are available for the year 2022. The number peaked in 2014, 2018 and 2021.

What are the top 10 types of arms export licenses Britain is selling to Syria? 

Top 10 military items exported from the UK to Syria between 2012-2022Total number of licenses
all-wheel drive vehicles with ballistic protection18
military helmets18
body armour14
components for body armour13
bomb suits6
components for all-wheel drive vehicles with ballistic protection5
munitions/ordnance detection/disposal equipment5
components for bomb suits5
components for military equipment for initiating explosives4
military equipment for initiating explosives2
Top 3 military export items from the UK to Syria between 2012-2022 by valueValue in GBP
ML13 ‒ Armoured plate, body armour, helmets£536k
ML4 ‒ Grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures£415k
ML7 ‒ Chemical, biological agents£253k

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?

1)  The Assad regime and its violations of human rights + chemical weapons attacks by the government

2)  The Syrian Civil War is one of the deadliest ongoing conflicts in the world

3)  Dangerous actions of armed opposition groups in the region (like ISIS etc.)

4) The conflict has caused the world’s largest refugee crisis, with more than 14 million Syrians having been forced to flee their homes and another 6.8 million Syrians remaining internally displaced within Syria. 70% of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance and 90% of the population lives below the poverty line.

5) Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, global inflation and the recent earthquakes exacerbate the already existing challenges. 

What has the British government said about these concerns? 

In January 2014, the UK government launched the Syrian Vulnerable Persons scheme, which is a “resettlement programme run by the UK to target support for refugees specifically on the basis of their vulnerability.  

Former Prime Minister, David Cameron said: “Britain will act with our head and our heart, providing refuge for those in need while working on long-term solutions to this crisis. As I said earlier in the week, that means bringing to an end to the conflicts that are driving so many to flee, including the bloodbath that has engulfed Syria.”

In 2015, the UK was the second largest bilateral donor to the Syrian crisis. Total contribution amounted to £1.12 billion from 2012-2015. During a UN discussion on the situation in the Middle East/Syria, in March 2022 regarding Syria’s chemical weapons use, Ambassador James Kariuki said that “Syria remains uncooperative. “ 

In October 2019 the UK stated that, although it would not provide new export licenses for weapons that could be used in military operations in Syria, the foreign secretary declared that the country will continue to sell arms to Turkey. That option is disconcerting in view of Turkey’s non-democratic behaviours and decisions under President Erdogan.

What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Syrian government has committed since 2012?

In the November 2022 UK statement at UN the UK “urged the Syrian regime to improve its appalling human rights record.” Saying, it condemns these acts and strongly supports efforts to hold perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity to account” and acknowledging that the “Syrian regime continues to commit crimes against humanity, war crimes, and human rights violations against the Syrian people, including the use of sexual violence, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture.”

On August 21, 2013, the Assad government employed the nerve agent sarin, a man-made chemical warfare agent classified as a nerve agent, against Syrian civilians in Damascus’ Ghouta district, killing over 1,400 people, the majority of whom were children.

Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) reports include long lists of human rights abuses by all parties involved in the conflict, including abuses by the Syrian-Russian Military Alliance, by Turkey and Turkish-backed Factions, by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the US-led Coalition and rebel groups. The UK exports arms to all of the above countries despite well-known involvement.

According to the 2022 HRW report, 306,000 civilians have been killed between March 2011 and March 2021. Authorities have been brutally suppressing “every sign of re-emerging dissent, including through arbitrary arrests and torture. Authorities also continued to unlawfully confiscate property and restrict access to areas of origin for returning Syrians.” All whilst the country experienced an unprecedented depreciation of the national currency, further imposition of international sanctions caused 9.3 million Syrians to become food insecure and over 80% to live below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, the fate of thousands kidnapped by ISIS remains uncertain. 

Moreover, between January and March 2020, HRW documented 18 unlawful attacks in Idlib. The attacks “killed at least 112 people and wounded at least another 359 and destroyed schools and healthcare facilities.” The report states that Cluster munitions were used in two of the attacks on schools.

The report continues, that as of 2021 at least 100,000 Syrians remain forcibly disappeared since 2011 and over 15,000 have died due to torture since the beginning of the conflict. The majority is at the hands of Syrian government forces.

Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to Syria.