As the security situation in Iraq and Syria continues to deteriorate, the underground weapons trade business is booming. Government security forces, tribal militias, Islamic State (IS) militants, and average citizens are stocking up on high-end guns and ammunition to protect themselves from enemies that threaten domestic stability. Weapons traders have capitalized on this rising demand and are making bank in a dangerous but lucrative market.
Who is buying weapons and for how much?
The culture of fear raging within Iraq and Syria has heightened the need for guns and ammunition. While government security forces and tribal militias are top customers for heavy weaponry, average citizens are also stocking up on guns as a form of self-defense.
Jaqad al-Shammari, media officer of the Human Rights Office of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, explains in an interview with Al-Monitor:
“Personal weapons can be found in every house in Iraq, as citizens feel an urgent need to protect themselves and their families from armed militias and thieves. Iraqis live in fear of their security day and night, and they have lost faith in the security institutions that are incapable of offering them complete protection.”
The trade of illegal weaponry has all the characteristics of a typical stock market, with prices rising and falling according to the security climate. Any time militants gain ground, prices spike for weapons as the demand for personal safety increases.
Prices of weapons have risen significantly within the last few years. Two years ago, a Kalashnikov would have cost $300 in northern Iraq, now the average price is $600. Today, an American M-16A2 assault rifle goes for $2,700 and American M-4 carbine goes for $6,000.
AK-47s are one of the more popular weapons among dealers given their abundance, going for $700, while an AKMS – a modernized AK-47 with a folding stock – is a whopping $2,000.
In Syria, dealers describe prices as rising by almost 90 percent during the past ten months with profits rising by nearly 60 percent. The business is a “gold mine,” and the past three years of conflict has been “the most flourishing in this illegal trade,” describes one well-known Lebanon-based seller.
IS militants have particularly benefited from the illegal weapons trade, as weapons from foreign militants cross the porous borders across Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan to fuel their escapades. Money from the Gulf is mostly used to purchase illegal weaponry, in addition to the wealth generated from smuggling oil in Iraq.
Who is selling the weapons and where are they coming from?
The origin of the weapons themselves is not exactly clear. In Iraq, private shopkeepers explain that they buy some weapons from the Iraq government, which has spent roughly $6.1 billion in defense expenditures in the fight against IS. Other dealers have captured weapons supplied by coalition forces as well as from Iraqi security forces after they abandoned their bases early in the fight against the Islamic State.
In October, for instance, ISIS militants seized large caches of weapons from the US that was supposed to end up in the hands of the Kurds battling IS forces in Kobani. The amount of weapons is unclear, but appears to have been quite significant.
The dynamic between those actually seeking weapons and those selling weapons in Iraq and Syria is complicated, but both buyers and sellers share the same desire to make gains in war fighting. Profit often trumps principle as local dealers sell weapons to the enemy and vise versa.
In Syria, for example, government soldiers are known to sell personal weapons – some freshly provided to the Assad regime by Russia and Iran – to rebel opponents in exchange for personal safety during attacks. Such an unusual transaction underscores just how powerful economic incentives are blurring the lines of allegiances in war.
These days, weapons can be sold and exchanged as openly as in the street. In Sadr City, a small town east of Baghdad, young men set up stands displaying various types of arms and munitions almost like a fruit or vegetable market. There is even a Facebook page to promote the sale and purchase of various types of arms in Iraq.
The ability to make these transactions out in the open has been key for buyers and sellers in the black market, as it has encourages greater interaction between both players just like in any legally run market.
Illegal weapons trade fueling conflict
The ease with which weapons can be bought and sold is a major reason the illicit economy in Iraq and Syria is flourishing.
Government officials and analysts are unsure what the total value of the illegal arms trade operating in Iraq and Syria really is. The market is hard to track and hard to control due to the clandestine nature of the transactions.
What is evident, however, is that the pool of weaponry has expanded tremendously and the death toll in both countries continues to rise. A most recent survey by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reveals that nearly 300,000 people have died in Syria alone since March 2011. In Iraq, over 16,000 civilians have been killed.
The illicit economy of weapons trade plays a large role in perpetuating this violence in both countries by allowing average citizens to purchase and use heavy weaponry. Because the black market for guns is dependent on such violence, it is unlikely that the arms trade will be devoid of profits anytime soon. For now, it is business as usual.