Choke off Belarus's deadly arms trade

Mark Douglas International Herald Tribune

KRYNICA, Poland As the United Nations monitors a delicate cease-fire in Lebanon while at the same time trying to field a peacekeeping mission to Darfur in Sudan, much attention has been focused on the weapons such as Katyusha rockets and Mi-24 gunships that have helped claim hundreds of thousands of lives in these two wars.

While focusing on the weapons and the combatants themselves, many overlook the fact that much of the weaponry that continue to fuel these and other regional conflagrations comes from the East European pariah state of Belarus.

If any cease-fire is to succeed in Lebanon, or if peacekeepers are to be successfully deployed in Sudan, then Belarus's role as a main supplier of weaponry for these conflicts must be addressed.

While few in the West know much about Belarus, the country is well known to unscrupulous arms dealers and state sponsors of terrorism as an eager and reliable supplier of illegal lethal military equipment. The United Nations is also very familiar with Belarus: During the late 1990s it identified the country as one of the worst violators of UN arms sanctions against Iraq. The Mi-24 helicopter gunships that today are raining down death and destruction in villages in Darfur were supplied by Belarus.

Alarmingly, over the last six years, Belarus has intensified its illegal arms shipment activities to the point of becoming the leading supplier of lethal military equipment to Islamic state sponsors of terrorism. During 2001 alone, according to Jane's Defense International, Belarus secretly delivered weapons worth more than $500 million, including Katyusha rockets, 120mm mortars, antitank rockets and mines, to Palestinian militants and countries including Syria and Iran.

Even after Sept. 11, 2001, Belarus not only continued to sell its impressive stockpile of weapons inherited from the breakup of the Soviet Union to almost all of the countries on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism - including North Korea, Sudan, Iran and Syria - but has defied Washington in doing so.

Belarus's president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has not even attempted to conceal his assistance to Syria in modernizing its military capability - and that of Hezbollah. "No matter how severely we are admonished for it," he said, "we will continue to help Syria militarily because they have promised to help us in the same way."

If anything, Lukashenko seems to relish his role of international outlaw. With his relations with the West at rock bottom, it seems he feels he has nothing to lose. The only significant source of potential pressure on Belarus is Russia, its neighbor, but the Kremlin continues to prop up Lukashenko - not only so that Belarus remains within Moscow's orbit, but also because the country is a willing and convenient middleman, selling many Russian weapons to disreputable countries that even the Kremlin does not want to be associated with.

Over the past decade, the United States has made minimal effort in trying to convince Russia to rein in Belarus's rogue arms deals. Moscow has not only refused to cooperate with Washington in this regard but has actually increased its military cooperation with Belarus.

With conflicts such as those in the Middle East and Sudan today being fueled by Belarussian weaponry, the nominal, half-hearted diplomatic effort to stop Belarus's illegal arms sales to state sponsors of terror and groups such as Hezbollah needs to be transformed into a comprehensive effort led by the United States and the European Union to compel the United Nations to place sanctions on Belarus for its continued illegal weapons transactions.

The EU and Washington should also work closely to increase their intelligence capabilities to better detect and interdict illegal Belarussian arms transfers, including those via third-country transit points.

Unless more is done, Belarussian weapons will continue to undermine the prospects for peace not only in Lebanon and Sudan but in several other hot spots.

Mark Douglas, a senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, is a former U.S. State Department fellow and Fulbright Scholar specializing on Belarus.