Throughout the Syrian civil war, as Russia and Iran have come under international scrutiny for their roles in the conflict, the small, former Soviet nation of Belarus has also quietly been contributing to President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Over the years, this assistance to Syria has waxed and waned, as Belarus has flitted between the so-called “moderate” Sunni states, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and renegade states, like North Korea and Iran.
In the past year, Belarus has been increasingly vocal about its cooperation with the Assad regime and, according to some analysts, has assisted it and its allies with military equipment and know-how.
Ronen Solomon, an Israeli freelance intelligence analyst who has been tracking Syria’s weapons development programs for years, believes that Belarus has been working with Syria to upgrade its medium-range rockets, including in the Syrian military’s Scientific Studies and Research Center facility that was hit in an airstrike attributed to Israel last month. Other analysts have concurred with this view.
Solomon was one of the first to uncover the alleged Israeli airstrike on the country’s nuclear reactor in 2007, writing about it along with Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ronen Bergman, and has since created an independent intelligence blog called Intelli Times, which is regularly cited in Israeli media outlets.
In an investigative report that he shared with The Times of Israel, Solomon documented the connections between Belarus and Syria’s defense ministry, based on open-source information, satellite imagery, and intelligence shared by Syrian opposition.
The apparently deepening relationship between these two countries, and the possibility that Belarus is helping improve Assad’s — and allies Iran and Hezbollah’s — missile technology should concern Israel, which has full diplomatic ties with Minsk. This especially holds true as the IDF announced on Thursday that it was looking to expand its “war between wars” operations to counter Hezbollah and Iran’s growing presence in the region.
The Scientific Studies and Research Center facility near Masyaf, Syria, allegedly hit by Israel, has long been suspected of being used to improve missile accuracy, based on satellite intelligence that showed the types of structures and materials being brought to the site. It is also believed to house unconventional biological and chemical weapons.
“In 2014, satellite images, like those on Google Earth, documented that in the center they’d begun building seven additional structures whose architecture is reminiscent of the facilities used in aerospace industries, along with another giant structure that is reminiscent of the factories in which the Iranians produce their various rockets,” Solomon noted in his report.
“By February 2016, ventilation systems that are used in buildings with underground levels had already been installed,” he wrote.
Solomon also connects Belarus to the Masyaf facility due, in part, to a report in the Syrian Zaman al-Wasl news outlet, which has been connected to opposition forces.
The website, which published that Iran was allegedly aiding in the construction of a missile base in northwestern Syria weeks before this was backed up by Israeli satellite imagery, subsequently reported that “military experts from Iran, Russia and North Korea” were working in the area.
However, Solomon believes that given the nature of the site and Russia’s interests in the region, it’s unlikely that Moscow would send experts to such a facility. While Russia has worked closely with Israel’s enemies Iran and Syria, it has at least attempted to not directly assist Hezbollah, a stance that would be compromised if it were found assisting this missile production facility. Instead, Solomon believes, it’s possible that these “Russian” military experts were in fact Belarusians.
Improving Iranian missiles
Since at least 2012, Western countries have suspected that Belarus maintained ties to the Syrian military’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, which also goes by its French acronym CERS.
At the time, they believed that the former Soviet country was working with Damascus to improve the precision of its medium-range M600 missiles, the Syrian version of the Iranian Fateh 110, Solomon said.
This missile, which Hezbollah is suspected of possessing, has a long enough range to be able to reach most of Israel from Lebanon or Syria, but its aim has not been particularly accurate.
Belarus, however, is particularly skilled in improving existing missiles with better guidance systems, owing to years of upgrading Russian technology, Solomon said.
In particular, he noted, the Belarusian companies that are suspected of operating in Syria tout not only their abilities to improve systems like the M600, but also their preparedness to sell technologies coveted by Hezbollah, like anti-aircraft systems, drones and shore-to-ship missiles.
In 2012, the France-based Intelligence Online website reported that Belarus was looking to sell fiber optic gyroscopes to Syria, which “are immune to cross-axis vibration, acceleration and shock, improve the guidance and accuracy of surface-to-surface missiles.”
Scott Johnson, an analyst with the IHS Jane’s intelligence company, told The Atlantic magazine at the time that this technology “would increase the regime’s ability to deliver destruction with even more deadly precision than with what is currently guiding their missiles.”
Belarus, which declared independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union, has been led by President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.
Most news outlets have not been closely tracking Minsk’s assistance to Syria over the past five years, lost under the radar as larger powers such as Russia, Iran, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey maintain a confusing tangle of alliances and rivalries on the ground and over the skies of the countries.
But the American government has. In 2012, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on a state-owned Belarusian defense contractor, Belvneshpromservice (BVPS), for allegedly providing Assad with “fuses for general purpose aerial bombs.” For its part, Belarus denied that it tried to sell weapons to Assad.
The European Union has also intermittently sanctioned Belarus companies under similar allegations, only to remove them in attempts to woo Minsk away from Moscow and toward western Europe.
In June 2016, the US again imposed sanctions on Belarus’s BVPS for violating the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, which forbids selling items to those countries that have the “potential to make a material contribution to the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or cruise or ballistic missile systems.”
The sanctions remain in place today, though a representative from the US State Department would not elaborate on the specific allegations against BVPS, saying they are classified.
However, not everyone is convinced. Analyst Siarhei Bohdan, who writes for the Belarusian Ostrogorski Center think tank, said Belarus’s ties to the Assad regime are not as deep as they appear. He believes the country is still looking to maintain its business ties with the Gulf states, which have deeper pockets than Syria, and that Belarus would not risk those relationships for a quick buck from Assad or Iran.
What can Assad offer Minsk that can replace and compensate deals [with Gulf states]?
“I don’t see any signs of supplying military hardware or expertise,” he told The Times of Israel over the phone. “What can Assad offer Minsk that can replace and compensate these deals [with Gulf states]?”
But Bohdan acknowledged that the existence of American and occasionally EU sanctions on Belarus at least makes the allegations against the country “valid.”
Big money in little Belarus
Since the end of the Cold War, Belarus has carved out a niche for itself in the international weapons market by upgrading and selling Russian military technology. This has at times drawn the country close to Russia, while at other times put the two nations at odds with one another as they turned from close allies into fierce competitors for weapons contracts.
This involvement in the arms market has been a lucrative venture for tiny Belarus, though the full extent of it is not entirely clear.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank that tracks weapons sales, calculated that Belarus made $625 million in arms sales from 2012 to 2016, making it the 18th largest weapons dealer in the world.
However, Belarus’s State Military Industrial Committee placed the figure dramatically higher, reporting this year that the country exported $1 billion worth of weapons and defense equipment in 2016 alone.
Solomon believes that at least a portion of the country’s defense income is coming from deals with Syria that are being routed through its leading defense exporter, BelTechExport
Last April, Intelligence Online, which has also been tracking Belarusian military cooperation with Syria since 2012, reported that the company’s “warehouses have been working overtime to meet [Syrian] demand.”
According to Solomon, Belarus’s decision to deepen its ties to Syria is likely not the result of a change in heart.
“They could make deals with Qatar, which backs [Syrian] rebels, or with Syria, which is fighting the rebels. They don’t have a God. The money is what matters, not the ideology,” Solomon told The Times of Israel.
Not trying to hide
The posting of a major-general as Syria’s defense attaché, Maj. Gen. Samer Arnus, to Minsk also points to the high level of military cooperation between the regimes, according to Solomon.
Typically, countries only have a major -general act as defense attaché in order to oversee highly developed relationships. Israel, for instance, has a major-general acting as defense attaché in the US, with which there are significant arms deals and intelligence sharing. Even in Germany, which supplies Israel with its strategic submarine fleet, an IDF colonel fills the post.
Solomon said he believes Arnus played a “respected role” in setting up the arms deals between the two countries, as evidenced by the fact that he met with and was thanked by Belarusian Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Andrei Ravkov in 2016 for his “significant contribution” to the countries’ cooperation, before he returned to Syria after completing his service in Belarus.
Solomon noted that this meeting happened at the same time as new structures were being completed at the Masyaf facility.
Despite Minsk being known as a secretive and oppressive regime, Belarus has not been quiet about its ties to the war-torn country and Assad, Solomon noted in his report.
The past two years saw a significant increase in the amount of cooperation between the two countries, with meetings between high-ranking officials, including senior defense figures, and the signing of multiple trade agreements.
These events were often followed by articles and pictures in both country’s state-run media.
In May, Assad gave an interview to a Belarusian television station, in which he described improving ties between the two countries.
“We have had strong relationship with Belarus since the times of the USSR. This relationship still continues, based on the common interests,” Assad said, according to Belarusian state media.
The Syrian dictator also noted that a visit by Belarusian Industry Minister Vitaly Vovk in April to the war-torn country further improved ties between the two countries.
“A number of deals benefiting the two parties were agreed,” Assad said.
We have had a strong relationship with Belarus since the times of the USSR.
Since the interview, the two countries have signed an additional trade deal, as well as medical cooperation agreements. Last month, a delegation from Belarus attended a trade expo in Damascus in which additional trade deals were reached.
“Agreements were reached to supply Belarusian equipment and to develop strong business contacts with Syrian partners, to set out the prospects for the return of Belarusian products to the Syrian market,” Belarus’s embassy in Syria told state media.
According to Bohdan, the Belarusian resarcher, the importance of the deals was likely inflated as Minsk attempted to compensate for allegations made by pro-Russian news outlets that some Belarusian defense companies were supplying Syrian opposition fighters through Bulgaria a few years ago.
The reports had strained the relationship between Russia and Belarus over Syria, where ties are seen as close but tense.
The Russian tension
Two analysts on Russia, Bruce McClintock and Bilyana Lilly, wrote about the countries’ strained relationship in an article for the National Interest this week. They noted that while the countries share a language and some older Belarusians “are nostalgic for the security and predictability of the Soviet era,” President Lukashenko has worked to maintain his country’s independence and stave off Russian attempts to encroach on its sovereignty.
This tension can be seen in Russia’s large-scale exercise, known as Zapad, which is taking place in Belarus this week. On the one hand, it shows the close relationship shared by the two countries, while on the other hand, Western security officials believe Russia might take advantage of its massive military presence in Belarus to launch a “Trojan horse” attack and establish a foothold in the country, as it did in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014.
This dynamic of trying to stay close with Russia, while remaining a distinct country, plays out in the realm of defense exports as well.
At times, Belarus and Russia cooperate fully on arms projects. In an article last month, Bohdan noted two cases of a Belarus company filling an order to overhaul fighter jets that was “secured via Russia.”
In an October 2012 article, Intelligence Online also recalled cases of Belarus stepping in to supply countries with which Russia does not want to “directly involve itself,” like Iran, Syria and Iraq.
The French intelligence site gives as an example Iran’s 2008 bid to purchase a Russian S-300 missile defense system. At the time, Russia faced considerable international pressure not to sell the battery to Iran. So instead Belarus sold it “an older but still operational version of the system.” (Russia sold Iran the S-300 system earlier this year, after the sanctions against the Islamic Republic were lifted with the 2015 nuclear deal.)
Yet the two countries are also competitors on the international weapons market and Belarus is increasingly setting itself apart from Russia in this area, especially in the field of electronic warfare.
One example of this, Solomon noted, is Belarus’s recent development of a jammer pod, known as Veresk, that can be attached to an airplane and is meant to counter enemy air defense systems, notably the Russian S-300.
Solomon said he is not sure how Belarus’s relationship with Russia influences its involvement in Syria, nor is Bohdan who stresses the country’s sovereignty and individuality.
However, Solomon suspects Moscow does not appreciate little Minsk entering its territory.
“The Russians, it seems, do not have an interest at this time in letting Belarus take part in its arms deals with Syria. They also might have had a desire to show the Belarusians, on the backdrop of the conflict between them on various issues, who wins and who loses,” Solomon wrote.