|The fruits of Russian neutrality, in Homs, Syria|
* * *
The biggest importer of arms to Syria, Russia sold Damascus nearly $1 billion worth of arms including missile systems last year, while shipments of hard-to-track Russian small weapons have risen since the uprising against Assad started, government defectors say.
In January, the Russian ship Chariot, loaded with arms and ammunition, turned off its radar and sailed quietly to Syria to avoid attracting the attention of world powers increasingly frustrated by Russia and China's refusal to back U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at ending 11 months of violence.
Moscow accuses the West of being one-sided, and says the arms it sells have not been used by Assad loyalists to kill 7,000 people, a figure used by advocacy groups, as violence has raged.
But rebel soldiers and an official who defected from the government say Moscow's small arms trade with Damascus is booming, and the government doubled its military budget in 2011 to pay for the crackdown on the opposition.
"I would say that on average the funds (for Defence Ministry expenditure) were doubled for 2011," said Mahmoud Suleiman Haj Hamad, the former chief auditor for Syria's Defence Ministry who defected in January.