Robert Stephen Ford, the US ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, told BIRN and the OCCRP that the trade is coordinated by the American secret service, the CIA, and expedited via Turkey and the Gulf States. By shipping to destinations that initially appear unsuspicious, he said, suppliers can circumvent all mandatory approval procedures. Furthermore, many of the flight documents investigated by BIRN contained no information whatsoever on cargo that weighed thousands of tons. Arms shipments from Bulgaria and Slovakia were flown out as “unidentified cargo.”
Weapons like these from eastern Europe are in use in Syria, not only by the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, but also by the Islamist fighters of Ansar al-Sham and the al-Nusra Front (now Fatah al-Sham), which until recently was allied with al-Qaida, as well as the group calling itself “Islamic State.” The two organizations BIRN and OCCRP have provided evidence of this, primarily photos and videos and images from social media.
Many eastern European countries supply arms to the Middle East. The trade is said to be worth more than a billion euros, with the majority of goods going to Saudi Arabia. But the weapons don’t stay there. Their ultimate destination is the war in Syria.
War-torn Syria is full of arms: thousands of AK47 assault rifles, machine guns, mortar shells, rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons, aging T-55 and T-72 tanks. Most are believed to come from the following countries: Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Montenegro, Serbia and Romania. They reach Syria via a circuitous route. First, they are sent by air or sea to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates or Turkey – then on from there to the war zone. The trade is worth 1.2 billion euros.
Years gathering proof
Journalists from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) researched for years to expose these arms transport routes. They analyzed export data and United Nations reports. They watched hundreds of videos and looked at hundreds of photos; they traced the movements of ships and planes, read arms contracts, and followed up on numerous tips from the arms dealers’ milieu.
A couple of examples: In a confidential document from 2013 obtained by BIRN and OCCRP, a high-ranking official in the Serbian defense ministry describes how arms shipments to Saudi Arabia were rerouted from there to Syria. And a detailed analysis of cargo planes provided evidence of more than 70 plane movements that were related to the indirect delivery of weapons to the conflict zone.