The U.S. Department of Defense is reportedly still funneling billions of dollars’ worth of Soviet-era weaponry to anti-Islamic State groups in Syria, with questionable oversight.
In a joint report published Tuesday, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) allege that the Pentagon has given up to $2.2 billion worth of weapons to groups like the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
The program sidesteps long-established checks on international weapons trafficking, the report alleges, and appears to be turbocharging a shadowy world of Eastern European arms dealers.
In particular, the Pentagon is reportedly removing documentary evidence about just who will ultimately be using the weapons, potentially weakening one of the bulwarks of international protocols against illicit arms dealing.
“The Pentagon is removing any evidence in their procurement records that weapons are actually going to the Syrian opposition,” Ivan Angelovski, one of the report’s authors, told Foreign Policy.
The program replaced a failed initial attempt to train and equip so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria beginning in 2014. Nine months later, the program collapsed after the vast majority of trainees were either captured or absorbed into other unvetted groups.
The Defense Department then decided that it would instead select “vetted” opposition forces on the ground and provide them with cheaper, Soviet-style weapons.
Legally, however, shipments like the ones that started flowing to groups in Syria are supposed to include information on the end-user of the weapons. Instead, according to the report, the Defense Department decided to allow the transfer of equipment to any army or militia it provides security assistance to — including Syrian rebels — without any clear documentation.
A Pentagon spokesman quoted in the report said the department monitored the usage of the equipment to ensure compliance. In comments to FP, spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway re-emphasized that, saying that the Pentagon “carries out end-use monitoring of issued equipment.” He also said that the the department’s primary objective was to provide equipment that was simple and easy to operate so that partner forces could quickly secure and hold territory retaken from the Islamic State.
Sidestepping rigorous controls on who receives arms threatens international efforts to halt arms trafficking, outside experts told the report’s authors.
The United States is “undermining the object and purpose” of the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty, Patrick Wilcken, an arms control researcher at Amnesty International, told the investigators. Another expert on conflict prevention said U.S. manipulation of the system could put the the entirety of the international arms control regime at risk.
In addition to the potential legal consequences of the Pentagon’s program, the report also documents issues with the acquisition process itself.
According to the report, many of the weapons suppliers — primarily in Eastern Europe but also in the former Soviet republics, including Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Ukraine — have both links to organized crime throughout Eastern Europe and spotty business records.
The sheer amount of material necessary for the Pentagon program — one ammunition factory announced it planned to hire 1,000 new employees in 2016 to help cope with the demand — has reportedly stretched suppliers to the limit, forcing the Defense Department to relax standards on the materials it’s willing to accept.
In a well-documented incident in 2015, a Pentagon contractor working for a little-known company called SkyBridge Tactical was killed in Bulgaria when an aging rocket-propelled grenade he was testing exploded at a firing range. According to the new report, the Defense Department continues to use one of the other contractors involved in the accident.
Several contractors and subcontractors have also reportedly bragged about paying “commissions” to foreign agents to secure deals, the report alleges.
OCCRP is a worldwide investigative reporting platform specializing in coverage of criminal networks and corruption. It receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the International Center for Journalists, and Google Jigsaw — among others.
BIRN is a news outlet focused on analysis, commentary, and investigative reporting from Southeast Europe. It is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and others.
Photo credit: GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images
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