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The Middle East and illicit arms sales: The perfect alliance


As Syria moves into the third year of a conflict that has claimed over 120,000 lives, and as Egypt further collapses into chaos, it is clear that the strife within these two countries has been possible thanks to a substantial, consistent, but invisible flow of arms to the region.

Last April, a vast majority of the UN General Assembly approved the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first international treaty that seeks to regulate the global flow of arms and weapons to war-torn areas. At its signature, the treaty was welcomed as a great political success, and it has, so far, been signed by 115 states, and ratified by 9. The treaty will enter into force once the 50th state ratifies it.

But while the treaty’s existence is a clear step forward for the international community, the Middle East – one of the most unstable regions in the globe – is still the venue for one of the most harmful and illicit flows of weapons. Both within and toward the Middle East, weapons are still being traded and transported, perhaps demonstrating the incoherence and hypocrisy of the international community’s efforts to halt arms sales to war-torn areas.

Indeed, over the past years, most of those countries that have promoted the treaty’s negotiations and final approval have constantly provided Middle Eastern countries with arms, even at the risk of fostering repression, the abuse of human rights, and the breach of international humanitarian law. According to recent EU statistics, in 2009, 53 percent of EU arms exports were directed to the Global South, with nearly 10 billion euros worth of weapons reaching the Middle East alone.

China, Italy, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the U.S. – just to cite the most important examples – have provided arms to countries such as Iran, Syria, and Egypt. And although these countries’ sales are partially to blame, one of the main problems is the internal instability of recipient countries, a factor that has further facilitated the illicit movement of weapons.

The Middle East as the ideal venue for illicit arms transfers

Unfortunately, the smuggling and trade of weapons in the Middle East has received little or no attention in mainstream media, despite the phenomenon’s relevance for international security and regional stability.

The Middle East’s social, political, and military instability have turned the region into an ideal venue for illicit movements of arms and weapons. This instability has also seen a rising suspicion among regional actors that has led to high degrees of militarization in the area, expressed not only by the countries’ increasing levels of military expenditures, but also – and especially – by the enormous inflow of weapons from abroad. Many of these arms come from great suppliers that are outside the Middle East and that have often tacitly supported the sales, primarily from the United States, Russia, China, and Europe.

Egypt and Syria are two cases that deserve particular attention because of the current developments and because of the large tolls that the conflicts there have provoked.

 Egypt: Heart of the Arab world and of arms smuggling

After the fall of Qaddafi in Libya, most of the country’s arms stocks were stolen by smugglers and turned up in Egypt, both as final destination and as a transit stop to the Gaza Strip and the Syrian rebels. Libya thus became a great source of armaments for the entire region, and Egypt was one of the most important junctions of arms-smuggling in the Middle East. Some of these weapons entered Egypt and stayed there in the hands of jihadists and extremists living in the Sinai Peninsula, further heightening the tension between the central government in Cairo and the rebels there.

The main problem in Egypt is that the central government in Cairo has paid little if no attention to the people’s needs in the Sinai, causing growing dissent in the area. The possession of arms by extremists and the Bedouin populations living in Sinai, then, poses a serious challenge to the government in Cairo in terms of internal stability.

But some of these weapons have also moved beyond Egypt, becoming a source of instability in neighboring countries. The illegal flows have turned up in the Gaza Strip, thus infuriating Israel, and putting into question the authority of the Egyptian government because of its inability to control the flows crossing Egyptian territory.

 The ‘Axis of Resistance’: The Iran-Syria alliance and its implications for arms smuggling in the Middle East

The illicit transfer of weapons has also become a major problem in the three-year-old Syrian conflict. The Shiite alliance between Syria and Iran, which some have labeled as the axis of resistance because of its staunch opposition to the Israel-U.S.-Sunni alliance, is a major feature of the Middle East today.

The main actor in the “Axis” is Iran, which is seen by many as attempting to achieve the status of regional hegemon in several ways. First, it has done so by politically and militarily supporting the Assad regime, thus consolidating the Shiite pillar within the Muslim world and in the Middle East in general. Second, Iran has, on more than one occasion, armed those Shiite populations living in other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Bahrain, in addition to supporting the Sunni militias in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Iran’s primary goal is, unsurprisingly, to counterbalance Israel’s influence with minor threats that would not require a direct involvement by the United States. Arms transfers are one such threat, one that should be seen as a leading cause in the Middle East’s continuing tension.


It is clear from these two examples that more could be done in this region. The illicit flow within and across Egypt could be solved if the central government in Cairo managed to reach a stable situation in which its authority is recognized on its entire territory and its oversight mechanisms are better refined. Political stabilization in the country would provide Cairo with strength and authority to pacify dissenting portions of the population, particularly on the troublesome Sinai Peninsula.

In Iran, the situation is perhaps more ideological. Tehran needs to realize that Israel may not be interested in becoming the region’s hegemon, but rather, that Jerusalem is simply seeking to protect its borders. If Iran reaches a situation in which it is satisfied with its economic and political status, it is likely to withdraw from its aggressive stance and pursue, instead, the maintenance of a relatively stable status quo.


Source: www.fptoday.org


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July 2018
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Roma - Sala “Massimo Paolicelli” Palazzo Teodoli, Piazza del Parlamento 19
Date :  2018-07-05


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