U.S. officials now believe up to 12 Russian made Yakhont missiles have been smuggled from Syrian Government hands to Hezbollah in Lebanon, according to a report by ForeignPolicy.com. In addition to possibly exacerbating regional tension, this flags should also concern Russian security officials and advocates for legal norms regarding arms trade. In 2007 Russia signed a contract with Syria that transfers Yakhont missiles, which fly at speeds capable of evading radar detection, to the Syrian government. This contract calls for the transfer of these weapons to cease if any leave direct Syrian control.
The U.S. government has previously made clear to Russia that the diversion of Russian-supplied missiles out of Syrian control directly violates Russia’s 2007 contract with Syria. Though potentially fueling a civil war and enabling the Assad regime to commit war crimes, Russian officials have stated that it is legally obligated to fulfill contracts agreed to prior to Syria’s civil war. The violation of this "end user agreement" should allow Russia to halt any further transfer of weapons into the hands of the Bashar al-Assad regime. The transfer of Yakhont missiles to Hezbollah may prove to be the most legally binding reason for Russia to end weapon sales to the Syrian Government.
We will have to wait and see if Russia acts lawfully. The situation is a prime example highlighting the importance of multilateral (as opposed to bilateral) agreements on arms trade. The Arms Control Treaty, signed by the United States last September, creates common international standards for the regulation of the international weapons market, particularly when human rights are being violated. If enforced, the ATT can provide states the proper avenue to make great strides towards eliminating the black-market sale of weapons as may have occurred under the bilateral Russia-Syria agreement.
The treaty shows promise to effectively promote transparency, global and regional peace. The United States, though not yet a full party to the treaty, should use the violation of the arms contract with Syria to encourage Russia to join it as a signatory. Apart from strengthening regional security, the U.S. and Russia should do this in the self-interest of supporting the goals of the Arms Trade Treaty as a powerful extension of their respective national and global security interests. As a signatory to the ATT, the U.S. can leverage its commitment to arms trade restrictions in pressuring Russia. If the United States had failed to sign the ATT, attempting to scold Russia over its failure to enforce its bilateral agreement would have been a non-starter at best, if not hypocritical.
As a signatory, the U.S. should at a minimum work with others in pressuring Russia to recover their Yakhont missiles, ensure more weapons do not enter illegitimate hands in violation of their agreement, and enhance security by signing the ATT. The U.S. should also demonstrate lasting commitment to the principles of the ATT by completing its ratification of the treaty.
The transfer of Yakhont missiles from Syria to Hezbollah control is not strictly a regional concern or issue. This problem involves the proliferation of weapons, terrorism, and a civil war that has already lead to humanitarian crises beyond the confines of national borders. Now, the United States, along with other ATT signatories and parties, must take a stand – pressure Russia to cease the flow of weaponry into Syria, re-secure the missiles from Hezbollah if possible, and join the international community adhering to the Arms Trade Treaty.