The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia

Russia: Syria’s Banker and Arms Supplier

The West and Russia continue to bicker over who can attend the much vaulted Geneva II peace summits, and the death and destruction has not stopped in Syria. While it seems that, for the moment, Syria is adhering to dismantling its chemical weapons programs, thousands of civilians continue to be killed by Assad,  through a regime strategy of starvation and bombardment. According to an organization that records and verifies the death toll, 3393 people have been killed since the UN mission to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons program began, 2082 of whom were civilians. And the rebels are finding it increasingly harder to acquire arms and ammunition, with regional powers worried about who is the ultimate recipient of the arms, and due to hesitance on the part of the U.S.

The same cannot be said for the regime and Assad, who continue to be supported both militarily and financially by Iran and Russia. While Iran’s direct involvement has become increasingly evident (including videos of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders engaging in frontline combat and directing troops), Russia’s support has also continued unabated; with U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford calling Russian military aid “substantial” and “militarily extremely significant.” Moscow not only provides Damascus with weapons, but also provides access to financial and banking services, creating an essential lifeline for the regime.

There have been a few public accusations of Russia supplying the Syrians with weapons through various methods. The ships Professor Katsman, Chariot and Alaed have all been publicly accused of ferrying weapons to Assad (the Professor Katsman is owned by Vladimir Lisin, the second richest man in Russia), as was the Syrian Air Airbus detained by Turkey in October of last year and said, by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, to be carrying Russian munitions for the regime. Because of the potential for air shipments of weapons to be easily interdicted, the method of choice for supplying the Assad regime has changed to shipping, which can be done more covertly and is a lot more difficult to interdict or stop. The vessels’ origin, nationality and cargo can also be forged—at least on paper—much more easily than aircraft transiting through sovereign states. The nonprofit research organization C4ADS recently released a report entitled “The Odessa Network” where they detailed the suspected shipments of weapons to the regime from St. Petersburg and the Ukrainian port of Oktyabrsk (Oktyabrsk was also a major shipment point for arms during the USSR). Every ship must register with the International Maritime Organization and has a unique AIS transponder signal that tracks the ships movements. By using transponder signals, international shipping registries and banking receipts, researchers were able to put together a picture of shipments between Russia and the Syrian ports of Tartus, Al Ladaqiyah and Baniyas. Additionally, the ships in the report are the same ships that are used for more public arms shipments, such as the Ocean Voyager, which delivered S-300 missiles to Venezuela. While many of the ships manifests and cargoes were not publicly available or its content independently verified, the report puts together a rather thorough picture of Russian arms moving into Syria.

Moscow’s push for negotiations at Geneva, while at the same time extensively supporting the Assad regime, tests the limits of authenticity in their true hopes for a negotiated settlement. Russia has consistently maintained that their shipments to Syria are fulfilling previously signed agreements and that they do not violate international law. It is true that they do not violate any U.N. sanctions. But the reason they don’t is because Russia and China have vetoed every effort to pass sanctions. The only sanctions currently in effect are U.S. and EU sanctions, and they are not legally binding to Russian companies (especially the state-owned defense export monopoly Rosoboronexport). That is why Russia reacts with such animus when a ship or plane carrying munitions to the regime is stopped, because technically Russia is not violating any sanctions that they themselves refuse to impose (Russian-supplied weapons have caused such concern to Israel that it has launched two strikes, most recently on October 31, to take out advanced missiles supplied by Russia to the Assad regime: the Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, and S-125 anti-air missiles).

The supply of munitions is a key factor in Assad’s longevity up until this point. Syria’s domestic weapons manufacturing capacity was, both before the war and much less now, not able to produce enough weapons or ammunition to support a sustained war. Nor did it have the capacity to refurbish and repair damaged helicopters, tanks or the YAK-130 trainer/fighters that have been used extensively by the regime for close air support and to bomb rebel strongholds. The continued supply of replacement parts and equipment is as important to the ability of Assad’s forces to operate as ammunition and guns. Without repair supplies, the Assad regimes ability to gain force multipliers through the use of tanks, helicopters and airplanes would slowly depreciate as they succumb to breakdowns and combat.

While weapon shipments do much to underpin the continued ability of Assad to kill and maim, the ability to pay for goods is also crucial. The Kremlin does not write off its shipments to Assad through a particular affinity for autocrats and still requires some payment. Due to economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the EU, Syria and its Central Bank have effectively been shut out of the international financial system; unable to engage in foreign exchange transactions to pay for goods or to deposit any payments in accounts anywhere in the U.S. or EU. The sanctions also prohibit any EU or U.S. bank from conducting any business with Syrian entities or persons listed in the sanctions. The effectiveness of these sanctions in shutting out the regime’s ability to conduct necessary business to not only sustain its military operations (particularly diesel and other petroleum products), but they are also impacting the ability to provide basic necessities to its supporters, as is evident by the dramatic emptying of Syria’s foreign currency reserves: before the war it was estimated that the central bank had $17-18 billion, today that figure has dropped to $2-4 billion. The dire situation has led to Iran, itself the subject of crippling economic and banking sanctions, to acquire a $3.6 billion credit line in addition to a previous line worth $1 billion.

In September, four U.S. Senators sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to bar several Russian banks—VTB, VEB and Gazprombank—from the U.S. financial system for what the Senators called: “…carrying on ‘business as usual’ with Syria, and have repeatedly undermined American, European Union, and United Nations sanctions.  Such activities have reportedly included Vnesekonombank’s facilitating Syrian payments for S-300 missile batteries, VTB’s holding President Assad’s personal funds, and Gazprombank’s making payments for crude oil.” The significance of blocking these banks from the U.S. is the fact that all three are major banks with significant international holdings — holdings whose business is intertwined with the U.S. and inevitably process a significant amount of transactions through either U.S. banks or in the U.S. itself. A sanctioning by the Treasury Department would shut out these banks from doing business with U.S. banks and from operating in the country, resulting in significant financial losses and restrictions.

As a result, Syria and the Central Bank are relying on smaller second tier Russian banks to do their business. Due to their exposed nature, and the fact that U.S./EU sanctions would have a serious impact, the larger banks (VTB, VEB, Gazprombank) are subcontracting their business to the smaller banks who are not as exposed to the wider international financial system. This means that threats of censure are not as threatening because most of their assets and business takes place inside Russia. Reuters has recently reported on documents it received about Syrian inquiries with a second tier Russian bank called Tempbank. The documents purport to detail attempts at using the bank to pay for agricultural foodstuffs and other basic necessities. This is crucial as without corresponding banks and access to foreign exchange the Assad regime cannot pay for basic goods.

Gazprombank, it seems, is no longer willing to deal with Syria after the international spotlight and threat of western sanctions. It released a statement saying, “[Gazprombank] is no longer engaged in business (including international settlements) with the central bank of Syria and other Syrian financial institutions.” But last year the Wall Street Journal reported on links between Russian and Syrian banks, particularly between the Syrian oil-marketing company Sytrol and the Russian bank Novikombank.  Novikombank’s relationship with Syria is strengthened because not only is it not as exposed to western sanction as Gazprombank, but its list of board members and chairman are close to Putin and serve as management for several other state-owned companies. The Chairman of the board of Novikombank is Sergey Chemezov, who is a close confidant of Putin and currently CEO of Rostec, the state-owned holding company in charge of the development and export of hi-tech products in both the civilian and defense sectors. Rostec also owns 100% of Rosoboronexport, the state defense export monopoly, and 17.8% of Novikombank itself. Two other board members, Vladimir Artyakov and Igor Zavyalov, serve as deputy CEO’s of Rostec. Another board member is Julia Karpova, who is the Deputy Chairman of VEB. The close relationship between the management of the bank to other state owned enterprises and Putin means that the Kremlin can “encourage” Novikombank to help support Kremlin foreign policy goals by engaging in business with Syrian banks.

Overseeing the relationship between Syria and Russian banks is Mohammed Makhlouf, the father of Rami Makhlouf, rumored to be the richest man in Syria (with a net worth estimated at $5 billion), and both have been described as “regime financiers” by the State Department. The U.S. has sanctioned both men, who are listed under the Office of Foreign Assets Control list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons: here and here. The EU has also listed Rami as a person who is to be sanctioned and, “All funds and economic resources belonging to, owned, held or controlled by persons responsible for the violent repression against the civilian population in Syria, and natural or legal persons, and entities associated with them, as listed in the Annex, shall be frozen.” Reuters reports that Mohammed oversees the relationship, “from a room in a Soviet-era skyscraper hotel, overlooking the Moskva river.” To ensure the continued relationship, Syria has started to pay some of its debts for previously agreed upon contracts and new supplies. But as was mentioned before, Russia and Russian banks are not subject to Western sanctions and Mohammed Makhlouf is free to roam Moscow without any consequence.

Russia continues to support Assad and shows no signs of wavering in its commitment. If one is still unsure as to the extent that Russia is willing to support Assad, now and in the future, then just look at recent statements by President Putin: “Will we help Syria? We will. And we are already helping, we send arms, we cooperate in the economics sphere.”