The Council of the European Union renewed its arms embargo on Syria this week by another three months, with the slight amendment to allow for “greater non-lethal support and technical assistance for the protection of civilians.” The council further affirmed that it would “actively continue the work underway to assess and review, if necessary, the sanctions regime against Syria in order to support and help the opposition.”
This decision, seen as a compromise between EU members that are solidly against direct military involvement in Syria and those that are ambiguously in favor of it (chiefly Britain), was, like all decisions taken at the supranational level, several months out of date and risibly insufficient. But an added element of pathos in this re-upping of status quo policy can be found in a remarkable new development: Syria’s rebels are now receiving better and more copious arms from some outside actor. Moreover, the way in which those arms are being distributed, as well as to whom, strongly hints that some Western actors are finally acceding to a military option for a conflict that never had a chance for a diplomatic or political breakthrough.
In one of the most strangely neglected stories in the two-year Syria conflict, beginning on January 1, four new weapon models began appearing in large quantities in Daraa province, none used at any time by the Syrian military. The M60 recoilless gun, the M79 Osa rocket launcher, the RPG-22 rocket launcher and the Milkor MGL/RBG-6 grenade launcher hadn’t been shown in any opposition videos until the new year. Every device was used in a massive joint rebel operation against Busr al-Harir, a town previously safely in regime hands to the northeast of Daraa city. Several tanks and BMPs (armored personnel carriers) were destroyed in the ensuing battle and, as Syria analyst James Miller of EA Worldview told me, what distinguished this rebel sortie from others was that “the fighters didn’t seem concerned about preserving the ammunition for these weapons.” Rebels tend to hoard the bullets of their Kalashnikovs, so the fact that they’d promiscuously expend the ammo of more powerful and newer-made arms is noteworthy. And there was another major oddity: Unlike most recent attacks against regime installations, the Busr al-Harir fight was waged mainly by secular or moderate units of the Free Syrian Army, with the normally ever-present Jabhat al-Nusra, the US-blacklisted Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq, conspicuously absent.
Busr al-Harir was by no means a one-off. Rebels continued to penetrate the southern province where the anti-regime protest movement took off in earnest in March 2011. More tanks and BMPs have gone up in flames in Zeizun, northwest of Daraa city, and others have been captured by the FSA. Rebels are approaching the city from the east and north, though also hitting within its limits from the south. On Valentine’s Day, they laid siege to El Sahoah, east of the city, eliminating an entire military convoy and sacking an air base and making off with at least one BMP. Four days later, they captured a checkpoint on Dam Road, affording them a new southeastern point of ingress into Daraa city. If this provincial capital were to be ring-fenced or taken by the opposition, Miller writes, it’d mark a significant setback for the regime because it would allow the rebels a direct supply line from Jordan straight into Damascus, where rebel operations are also taking place in the outlying suburbs and in the capital itself.
From Daraa, these munitions began popping up in other provinces. According to Eliot Higgins, who blogs obsessively about Syrian warfare as “Brown Moses” and who first uncovered the new hardware in Syria, the RPG-22 and M60 have since turned up in Idlib; the RPG-22, M79 and RBG-6 in Hama; the RPG-22 and M79 in Aleppo; and all four have appeared in Damascus. In an email, Higgins said that markings from M79 rocket pods suggest a manufacture date of 1990-1991, although the rocket launcher itself was first manufactured in 1979. Yet clearly this is still an improvement on the more commonly used RPG-7.
In one video, rebels demonstrate how the M79 works to a relevant figure: Colonel Abdul-Jabbar Mohammed Ogaidi, the FSA representative of the Northern Front of the Supreme Military Council. He also, intriguingly, serves on the Front’s Armament Committee. (Ogaidi was a main point man for Future Movement MP Okab Sakr, who previously ran consignments of light weapons into Syria.)
Higgins further happened upon a revealing training video showing the al-Farouq Brigade giving a lesson in how to handle some of this Balkan hardware to the Dawn of Islam Brigade. This exercise was coordinated under the auspices of the Free Damascenes Movement, a newish coalition of rebels seeking to unify all Islamic units in the insurgency under one heading, excepting (again) Jabhat al-Nusra. “That process,” Miller wrote in a blog post on EA Worldview, “appears to have started in late November and came to fruition in late December, approximately the same time we started to see the surge in foreign arms. This effort appears to have started in the south, in Daraa Province, with the eventual goal of liberating Damascus.” Both Miller and Higgins suspect that Jordan and Turkey are the entry points for the new weapons, given their proliferation in the north and south of Syria.
That sophisticated anti-tank and anti-infantry munitions are now being funneled exclusively to non-extremist rebel units, who themselves are committed to isolating al-Qaeda, suggests either a staggering coincidence or some degree of external facilitation. Now here’s another interesting fact. The M60, the M79, the RBG-6 and the RPG-22 are all currently in use by the Croatian Army.
Croatia, which, along with a host of European and Middle Eastern powers, recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, is not yet a member state of the European Union (it is set to accede in July of this year) and so, technically, it is not beholden to the EU arms embargo. It is, however, a member of the Friends of Syria umbrella group: Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusić attended the second conference in Istanbul in 2012, and she’s previously expressed concern about Croatia’s oil and gas fields, which sanctions and deteriorating security have rendered useless. (About a year ago, Croatia instructed all of its businesses to withdraw from Syria, an act that left INA, the national oil company, operating at a loss of “hundreds of millions of euros.”) A pro-EU Balkan state not yet subject to EU jurisdiction would also have a nice geopolitical motive to help undermine a proxy of Russia.
But even assuming that Zagreb isn’t directly or indirectly supplying these arms to Syria, might a hitherto unknown arms dealer – Croatian or otherwise, state or non-state – now be working directly with a regional intermediary who is supplying them? If so, how is it that this arms dealer has managed to negotiate relatively smooth supply routes through both Jordan and Turkey?
One plausible scenario would be that these weapons were all coming from Libya, which was one of the initial arms-runners to the Syrian opposition. The former Yugoslavia, which manufactured the M60 and M79, formerly enjoyed warm ties with Muammar Qaddafi, as did Croatia prior to the Libyan revolt and subsequent NATO intervention (former Croatian President Stipe Mesić seemed to want those ties to continue regardless).
So it is possible that the M60s, M79s, RPG-22s and RBG-6s were all sold to Libya a long time ago and were only just emptied from warehouses by the National Transition Council for urgent use in another country – although this then raises the question of why it took the new Libyan government a year to send the heavy-duty materiel to the Syrians when it previously trafficked in only light arms and ammunition. Nor does this explain why the NTC suddenly decided to empower the moderates over the jihadists in a highly organized fashion that, superficially, accords with Western preconditions for supporting the armed opposition.
Over the course of the last few days, I’ve tried repeatedly, by phone and email, to query both the press officer and military advisor at the Croatian mission in New York to see if they might account for the provenance of four weapon models that, taken together, are exclusive to their country’s arsenal. I received no reply.
One Washington-based source close to the Syrian rebels suggested that Croatia “might be involved” but thought the Libya clearinghouse theory was more persuasive, particularly as new stockpiles of Libyan weapons have been appearing and disappearing from Mali. That said, the source believes that classroom training seminars bespeak “total formalization,” and because “the people getting these weapons are not Salafis or Nusra, that suggests a Western power” orchestrating or overseeing the entire effort.
In its reports on the EU arms embargo renewal, the Washington Post cited diplomats in Brussels and London who alleged that Whitehall was indeed intent on arming vetted and responsible rebels. While British Foreign Secretary William Hague denied such claims, saying his government merely wanted to “give assistance and advice that we’d been restricted in giving before,” he nevertheless left the door open a crack for further action. “We would have gone further,” Hague said.
From the looks of it, someone already has.