Investigative Reporting Uncovers Syria-Bound Arms Route from Southeast Europe Through Germany

An investigation by reporters [en] of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) has provided new insight into Pentagon spending for weapons destined for Syrian rebel forces.

According to the BIRN report, the U.S. has funneled shipments of AK-47s, rocket launchers, ammunition, and other arms, totaling over $700 million in value in just two years, to Syrian rebels via back channels. The bulk of the arms seem to have been purchased in Central and Eastern Europe and are more than likely ending up in the hands of paramilitary formations fighting ISIS in the region.

The report has also uncovered evidence of another $1.5 billion allocated for either purchase of arms already underway or budgeted for the near future.

A leaked Pentagon email from December 2016, recently obtained by BIRN and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), first raised eyebrows and prompted reporters to dig deeper. The email voiced concern from German authorities, who had “become very sensitive” to Pentagon contractors requesting a higher than usual number of permits to transport weapons from the Balkans across Germany, to various U.S. military bases.

After officials in Berlin expressed concern, the Pentagon’s U.S. Special Operations Command Mission (SOCOM) ordered contractors to stop submitting requests to German authorities, saying all requests would be “coordinated through State to Germany.”

Germany has played a key logistical hub for U.S. military operations for decades and hosts one of the most vital U.S. air bases in Europe, as well as a nearby ammunition depot at Miesau, the largest outside the United States. It has never been clear, however, whether and how much of a role these U.S. military facilities in Germany have played in the arms supply line to Syria.

The December 2016 SOCOM email was the first piece of evidence to reveal that contractors were being tasked with purchasing weapons from Central and Eastern Europe that tie back to rebels fighting ISIS in Syria.

Between 2015 and mid-2017, $243 million of the $718 million spent went to weapons purchased in Bulgaria alone, according to the investigation. Ammunition was purchased from Afghanistan, Czech Republic, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia, Ukraine, Poland, Croatia, Kazakhstan, and Georgia, while some $135 million of purchases haven’t been accounted for.

Reporters managed to obtain several contracts and other documents, as well as statements from contractors who asked to remain anonymous, during the months of investigation invested, all of which show references of these arms being funneled to Syria. One of the unnamed contractors claims that U.S. bases in Germany and Romania had played a strategic role in the vast logistical network being used to transport arms from the Eastern Bloc to Syria between September 2015 and May 2017.

The report adds that at least one reference of “acquisition of non-standard equipment for Syria and Iraq” was removed from a procurement document, after reporters requested to see contracts signed in September 2016 from the Pentagon. “Non-standard equipment,” as explained by those familiar with the industry, is a term usually used to describe Soviet-style arms and ammunition.

According to BIRN, SOCOM claims that it does not currently “store or transit” equipment bound for Syria through its German bases.

Danica Radisic

Danica Radisic is Editor-in-Chief of The SEE Observer. She is also the proud owner of toddler, teen, two dogs, and a boutique communications and marketing agency. Danica has spent over a decade not only following and working with media in Southeast Europe, but also training journalists in using new tools and new media development. Follow Danica on Twitter as @nikibgd.

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