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U.S.-Balkans-Syria Arms Triangle Revealed

States in CEE and elsewhere are selling arms to the Pentagon for use by Syrian rebels, according to new investigation.

13 September 2017

The United States is using back channels to funnel billions of dollars’ worth of Central and East European-sourced arms to Syrian rebels, according to an investigation by two media outlets.


In less than two years, up until this May, the Pentagon had facilitated shipments of AK-47s, rocket launchers, ammunition, and other Soviet-style arms totaling more than $700 million – most of it likely going to groups fighting the Islamic State in Syria, the reports by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Balkan journalism organization BIRN assert.


Shipments of an additional $1.5 billion worth of arms are either under way or budgeted, BIRN’s flagship publication Balkan Insight reports.


The two organizations earlier uncovered evidence that since 2012 a number of Balkan countries have sent Soviet-style weapons and ammunition to Middle Eastern countries, from where they were probably shipped on to fighters in Syria or Iraq.


They have now obtained U.S. procurement records showing direct Pentagon involvement in the trade under a program first approved by the Obama administration in 2015.


Purchases of munitions facilitated by the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and a U.S. Army arsenal in New Jersey “are being transported by both sea and air from Europe to Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait. They are then distributed to U.S. allies in northern and southern Syria by plane and truck,” according to OCCRP.


“SOCOM has not previously acknowledged its role in the Syria Train and Equip program. In a written statement to BIRN and OCCRP, the Pentagon confirmed that the secretive unit was charged with procuring weapons and ammunition for Syrian rebels. SOCOM is also known to covertly supply U.S. partners in other conflicts,” OCCRP writes.


Bulgaria has taken the lion’s share of the arms shipments between 2015 and May 2017: $243 million out of $718 million, Balkan Insight reports.


Munitions were also sourced from Afghanistan, the Czech Republic, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia, Ukraine, Poland, Croatia, Kazakhstan, and Georgia, in descending order. The source of purchases worth about $135 million is not known.


Several end-user certificates obtained by reporters claim the arms are for the use of the U.S. military. This could allow SOCOM “to divert the equipment to any army or militia to whom it is providing security assistance, including Syrian rebels, according to arms control experts who have reviewed the evidence,” according to OCCRP.


In at least one instance a reference to “acquisition of non-standard equipment for Syria and Iraq” was removed from a procurement document after the two media organizations asked the Pentagon about contracts signed in September 2016, OCCRP says. “Non-standard equipment” refers to Soviet-style arms and munitions, whether of recent or older manufacture.


Syrian rebels fire their weapons during a battle with government forces in 2012. Photo by Freedom House/Flickr



  • The U.S. Defense Department has budgeted $584 million to procure Soviet-style munitions for Syria in financial years 2017 and 2018 and has earmarked another $921 million between now and 2022, for a total of $2.2 billion, the investigation found.


  • One set of Pentagon-approved purchases totaling $479.6 million lists no end destination, although most, if not all, of the purchases are meant for Syria, according to the report.


  • In the wake of the previous OCCRP and BIRN investigation into Balkan arms sales to the Middle East, Montenegro last year  defended its decision to approve arms sales to Saudi Arabia, while saying it would block future export permits if there was evidence the weapons would be diverted to Syria or other Middle Eastern conflict areas.

Compiled by Ky Krauthamer

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