A new investigation has revealed the discreet sale of arms and ammunition amounting to more than a billion pounds that has been fuelling the civil war in Syria, which has so far killed more than 280,000 people and displaced millions.
The investigation, carried out by a team of reporters from Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), has found out that eastern European countries have exported weapons to Middle-Eastern nations, from where they are dispatched to key arms markets — Syria and Yemen.
Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Montenegro, Slovakia, Serbia and Romania have been selling arms to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey over the past four years, according to the report. Sale of weapons and ammunition -- sourced from Eastern European countries to Saudi Arabia -- amounting to €806 million was approved since 2012, BIRN and OCCRP have claimed while citing national and EU arms export reports and government sources.
Jordan secured €155 million worth of export licences in this period, the UAE acquired €135 million and Turkey €87 million, bringing the total to just under €1.2 billion.
How the lords of war are make a killing
Evidence of Croatian weapons found in Syria first emerged in the winter of 2012 after Saudi Arabia purchased Yugoslav-era weaapons were dispatched from Zagreb to Jordan. Despite the Croatian government's denial, U.S. ambassador to Syria between 2011 and 2014, Robert Stephen Ford, said Zagreb had concluded a deal in 2012 bankrolled by the Saudis.
Many other eastern Europeean arms dealer followed suit by procuring assets from their own countries and brokered the sale through Ukraine and Belarus.
The weapons are delivered by air and by sea. Belgrade, Sofia and Bratislava emerged as the main hubs for the airlift after BIRN and OCCRP's investigation narrowed down almost 70 flights that most likely delivered the arms.
Serbia's aviation authority also confirmed that 49 of the flights were transporting weapons in a response to a freedom of information request.
Since the summer of 2014, thousands of tonnes of unidentified cargo found its way to the same military bases in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, routed through planes from Bulgaria and Slovakia, according to EU flight statistics.
Arms bought by the Saudis, Turks, Jordanians and the UAE for Syria are routed through two secret command hubs -- called military operation centres (MOCs) -- in Jordan and Turkey. The Saudis have even airdropped weapon materiel to their allies in Yemen.
To try and counter the spread of Isis, Washington has also bought and delivered large amounts of military equipment for the Syrian opposition sourced from central and eastern Europe.
According to American procurement documents and ship tracking data, three cargo ships commissioned by the U.S. military's Special Operations Command (Socom) have left Black Sea ports in the Balkans for the Middle East since December 2015.
Approximately 4,700 tonnes of weaponry have been delivered from Bulgaria and Romania to military facilities in Jordan and Turkey. On June 21, the latest U.S.-chartered ship left Bulgaria carrying about 1,700 tonnes of materiel for an unidentified Red Sea port.
Lack of accountability
The U.S. strategy of arming rebels has exposed the chinks in their armour ever since the Cold War. This cold harsh reality was learned when after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. attempted to buy back the Stinger missiles from warlords who had received them through CIA backing. The $55-million programme, launched in 1990 to buy back around 300 missiles, failed by 1996 around 600 were unaccounted for. Some found their way into Croatia, Iran, Sri Lanka, Qatar and North Korea.
The Syrian strategy is exposing the same sort of vulnerability. Eastern and central European weapons and ammunition, identified from videos and photos posted on social media, are now being used by Western-backed Free Syrian Army units, and also by fighters from Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Sham, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State group, factions fighting for the Syrian president, Bashar-al-Assad, and by Sunni forces in Yemen.
Two weeks after a March 2016 delivery, Kurdish groups published on Twitter and Facebook a photo of a warehouse filled with ammunition boxes in northern Syria, claiming to have received a supply of U.S.-brokered weapons.
The Saudis and Turks are also known to have provided weapons directly to Islamist groups not supported by the U.S. and who, in some cases, are fighting MOC-backed factions.
"Unfortunately in some parts of the world they are at war more than ever and everything you produce, on any side of the world you can sell it," Aleksandar Vučić, Serbian prime minister was quoted as saying in a press conference. He added that even if Serbia increased production fivefold, it would still not meet the demand for arms.
Arms export licences were granted to European nations in breach of national, EU and other international agreements according to Bodil Valero, the European parliament's rapporteur on arms.
"Countries selling arms to Saudi Arabia or the Middle East region are not carrying out good risk assessments and as a result are in breach of EU and national law…I think these countries could be taken to the European Court of Justice," said Valero
"The evidence points towards systematic diversion of weapons to armed groups accused of committing serious human rights violations… If this is the case, the transfers are illegal under … international law and should cease immediately." Patrick Wilcken, arms control researcher at Amnesty International, was quoted saying.