Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria.

Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. Khalil Hamra/AP

This Site Tracks the Guns Going Into Syria

The movement of weapons into Syria and Iraq just became much more visible to the entire world. By Patrick Tucker

The scene is a battlefield in Syria. A group of Kurdish People’s Protection, known as YPG, forces have just pushed a unit of Islamic State, or ISIL, fighters into retreat. As the Kurds move in to secure the hard-won territory, they are followed by two British weapons monitors armed only with cameras and notepads. The monitors fan out across the terrain to investigate the abandoned ISIL positions and find the shell from an M79 or “thumper” shoulder-mounted grenade launcher, the type produced in the United States for decades and still used around the world. They document the find and upload pictures of it to a database. From there, it lands on a website called iTrace and on computers and phones around the world, along with facts about its pedigree and other pertinent information.

Who tracks the guns falling into the hands of militant groups around the world? As of now, it’s the European Union-funded iTrace system, live today on the Conflict Armament Research Website. It’s the fruit of an ongoing effort of a small group of journalists and arms control experts who have been going into Syria and other war zones to document and publicize the flow of weapons into the conflict.

“The iTrace system geospatially maps weapons data collected by Conflict Armament Research’s field investigation teams. The teams work globally in a growing number of armed conflicts,” according to the group’s website. “The system plots dates of transfer, illicit supply routes and traffickers involved for any one item (among thousands) of trafficked SALW (or small arms and light weapons) and other conventional weapons and ammunition on an online world map.”

James Bevan, director of Conflict Armament Research, the group behind iTrace, talked to Defense One about how the site came to be.

In 2009, Bevan was working as a UN sanctions monitor in South Sudan. He and the other monitors wanted a sense of how arms were moving into and out of the country, rather than just within the country itself. “As a monitor, you tend to focus on those countries under embargo. But the more you look at the flow of weapons, the more you realize that there are regional linkages. You have to start conducting investigations regionally…Nobody had gone in, on the ground, to document weapons and ammunition before, except for in a very limited number of cases where there was a sanctions monitoring team on the ground.”

Today, 11 monitors make up the Conflict Armament Research investigation teams. They include two researchers who first went to Syria in June and are headed back there this fall. The teams are made up of former UN monitors, arms export scholars and journalists with a deep sense of neighborhood and local politics—as well as familiarity with guns and ammo. They’re very much exposed to the same perils that all foreign journalists and aid workers face in war zones. In Syria, iTrace workers are embedded with the YPG. Whenever the YPG overrun an enemy position and deem the situation safe, iTrace investigators then move in and begin documenting the ammunition, arms and other puzzle pieces.

“Their security is dependent on the amount of information they have about the front lines,” said Bevan. “If we go and operate in a new region, those investigations are preceded by many months of high-level diplomatic action, security clearances, forging links with opposition forces. Once all of that is in place, we will put a team on the ground.”

The site itself is in its earliest stages. The number of records is small and mobile browsing is awkward. But the backend works. The site is powered by the Dfuze, a product from Intelligent Software Solutions, or ISS, that Defense One has covered previously. A search for “M79” or “five-pointed star” will return ammunition recently documented in Syria, among other places. You can also search by country.

Bevan argues that for the endeavor to have credibility, the iTrace database can’t rely on open source intel. He could put out a call Syrians, Iraqis and everyone who lives in and around those areas to begin documenting these items themselves and simply pay them a reward. It would be cheaper and less likely to risk the lives of foreign investigators. But Bevan needs experts in the field staying in constant contact with him via satellite and through intermediaries.

The iTrace creators hope that by making the flow of weapons into conflict zones transparent, people will gain a better understanding of the ways their own governments participate in the movement of guns into places like Syria, which in turn could create pressure to curb arms transfers.

“You can go to a national government and say, ‘In this region, you may have transferred weapons to this recipient government. We found 65 percent of those weapons are already out in the illicit market so you need to tighten up your arms export controls because you’re feeding this conflict,'” Bevan explains. “It gives us a lot of persuasive power.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, in an op-ed in The Boston Globe on Friday, reiterated the administration’s commitment to supplying arms to rebel fighters in Syria. “We are embarking on an important effort to train and equip vetted members of Syria’s opposition who are fighting the Islamic State and the regime at the same time. By degrading the Islamic State and providing training and arms to the moderates, we will promote conditions that can lead to a negotiated settlement that ends this conflict.”

As the U.S. increases the flow to arm groups in the region against one another, sites like iTrace provide a publicly available accounting of the real costs of weapons charity, in real time.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story attributed quotes to Neil Fretwell of the company ISS. The quotes came from James Bevan, director of Conflict Armament Research.

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