The Serbian prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, said in June that his country could increase production fivefold and still not meet the demand for arms. “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,” he said.
Eastern European countries have approved the discreet sale of more than €1bn of weapons in the past four years to Middle Eastern countries that are known to ship arms to Syria, according to an investigation by a team of reporters from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Thousands of assault rifles such as AK-47s, mortar shells, rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons and heavy machine guns are being routed through a new arms pipeline from the Balkans to the Arabian peninsula and countries bordering Syria. Jeremy Binnie, the Middle East arms expert for the publication Jane’s Defence Weekly, said: “The militaries of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE and Turkey use western infantry weapons and ammunition, rather than Soviet-designed counterparts. It consequently seems likely that large shipments of such materiel being acquired by – or sent to – those countries are destined for their allies in Syria, Yemen and Libya.”
Arms export data, UN reports, plane tracking, and weapons contracts examined during a year-long investigation reveal how the munitions were sent east from Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Montenegro, Slovakia, Serbia and Romania. Since the escalation of the Syrian conflict in 2012, the eight countries have approved €1.2bn (£1bn) of weapons and ammunition exports to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey – key arms markets for Syria and Yemen. 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, but are also in the hands of fighters from Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Sham, the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, Islamic State, factions fighting for the Syrian president, Bashar-al-Assad, and by Sunni forces in Yemen. The Saudis and Turks are known to have provided weapons directly to Islamist groups not supported by the US.
In the past, the region had virtually no track record of buying from central and eastern Europe. But purchases appear to be escalating, with some of the biggest deals approved in 2015. Arms export licences were granted despite fears from experts and within governments that the weapons could end up with the Syrian armed opposition, arguably in breach of national, EU and other international agreements. Patrick Wilcken, an arms control researcher at Amnesty International, and Bodil Valero, the European parliament’s rapporteur on arms, said, “The evidence points towards systematic diversion of weapons to armed groups accused of committing serious Human Rights Violations,” said Wilcken. “If this is the case, the transfers are illegal under … international law and should cease immediately.”
The weapons pipeline opened in the winter of 2012, when dozens of cargo planes, loaded with Saudi-purchased Yugoslav-era weapons and ammunition, began leaving Zagreb bound for Jordan. Soon after, the first footage of Croatian weapons emerged from Syria. Croatia’s government has consistently denied any part in shipping weapons to Syria, but Robert Stephen Ford, the US ambassador to Syria between 2011 and 2014, said Zagreb had concluded a deal in 2012 that the Saudis bankrolled. This was just the beginning. Since 2012, BIRN and OCCRP say, €806m worth of weapons and ammunition exports were approved by the eastern European countries to Saudi Arabia. Jordan secured €155m worth of export licences in this period, the investigators say, while the UAE acquired €135m and Turkey €87m, bringing the total for those four years to just under €1.2bn.
The United States has also bought and delivered large quantities of military materiel from central and eastern Europe for the Syrian opposition in an attempt to counter the spread of Isis. Since December 2015, three cargo ships commissioned by the US military’s Special Operations Command (Socom), in charge of the covert supply of weapons to Syria, have left Black Sea ports in the Balkans for the Middle East, according to American procurement documents and ship tracking data. Some 4,700 tonnes of Warsaw Pact weaponry – including heavy machine guns, rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons, as well as bullets, mortars, grenades, rockets and other explosives – have been delivered from Bulgaria and Romania to military facilities in Jordan and Turkey, according to procurement documents and ship tracking data. The latest US-chartered ship left Bulgaria on 21 June carrying about 1,700 tonnes of the same material to an unidentified Red Sea port.