Foreign Policy Blogs

U.S. Employs Straw Purchaser to Transfer Lethal Weapons to Syrian Rebels: Another Violation of the Arms Export Act?


Guns to Syria. U.S. Pays Saudis to Buy Guns from Croatia for Transfer to FSA. Could be. According to major mainstream newspapers — NYT, The Telegraph, the Guardian — the Obama Administration has been paying Saudi Arabia to purchase serious military from Croatia, a country well-versed in the devious art of arming anti-government rebels, which then transfers the weapons to the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The irony, of course, is that the FSA ordnance is just an umbrella term for a loose aggregation of Sunni militias whose best units–and consequently the fighters awarded the most money and the most lethal weapons– are, according to its own reports, puritanical Islamic jihadists, shouting “death to the United States and the West,” even as these targets scramble to comply with strategies the Saudis clearly believe are in their own best and immediate interests.

Even as the story expands, however, there is still too much empty space between the lines. Newly-appointed Secretary of State John Kerry admits the U.S. supports “other nations” sending the Syrian rebels weapons (omitting any mention of who’s paying for what). A Croatian government spokesperson denies all. The U.K., also implicated as a covert financier, says “no comment.”

But no one has asked if the weapons allegedly purchased by Saudi Arabia from the Croatians and paid for with American greenbacks were in fact manufactured in the USA.

If they were, then this tangled web the U.S. continues to weave could translate into something more sinister than deceit — it may represent a conspiracy to violate the Arms Export Act, the law that prohibits purchasers of U.S. manufactured weapons from reexporting them to other countries or foreign entities, especially those which may be hostile to the United States or to countries, like Syria, which is currently subject to a European arms embargo.

I’ve written a lot about the Export Control Act. From a blog dated September 5, 2011:

…the Arms Export Control Act is, in fact, a servant to Article Three of the United States Constitution, which defines the act of selling weapons to those who would ‘levy war against the United States’ or ‘giving aid and comfort to our enemies’ as treason. No kidding. Treason. If a US law enforcement agency wants to involve itself in the sale of weapons purchased from US gun dealers for export purposes–sales that may be part of an legitimate enforcement or military operation–that agency, let’s say ATF, must apply to the State Department for an exemption from the licensing requirements normally imposed on the commercial sale and export of such weapons. If an enforcement agency or military entity intent on running a covert op involving the export of lethal weapons does not obtain the necessary exemptions from State, for–listen carefully–each weapon or bundle of weapons purchased, that agency or military purchaser has committed a crime…When arms are purchased as part of a commercial deal from US manufacturers for shipment overseas–when the sale is not part of a law enforcement or military operation–the purchasing agent must apply to State for both a license and the importer must provide a valid End-User Certificate (EUC). If the EUC is obtained as part of a fraudulent deal, i.e., the guns were never meant to go where the purchaser said they were going, then the export license is automatically deemed null and void. If a commercial buyer does not obtain an export license from State as well as a bona fide EUC, that buyer has committed a crime.

If any of the weapons purchased by the Saudis with U.S. dollars from the Croatians were manufactured in the United States and imported into Croatia, let’s say as part of a NATO peacekeeping operation, during or anytime after the conflict in Yugoslavia in the early ’90s, and the Croatians have forwarded those weapons to the Syrian opposition, then critics claim the architect of this latest plan, whether at State or within the administration, can be charged with conspiracy to violate the Export Control Act.

If importers of U.S. weapons, in this case, Croatia, obtained these arms via an EUC designating Croatia as the final purchaser, and then sent these same weapons on thier way as part of this U.S.-Saudi-Croatia-Syria shell game, no matter how long they’ve been in the possession of Croatia (the proper end user), then it’s Congress and the American people (who don’t seem to understand who exactly the FSA is or why cash-strapped citizens are sending tens of millions to Sunni militants in Syra) who should be up in arms.

Here’s the Deal

The United States and its European allies need the Royal House of Saud, aka Aramco, to stand between them and anybody who might want to throw a fly in the oil — even if it means using anti-American jihadist militias to bring down Assad’s Shiite (and Russian-supported) empire and substitute Sunni (the same Muslim sect to which the Royal House of Saud owes its survival) control over Syria’s oilfields — a blow to the EU, which imports 90 percent of its oil from Syria, if not American consumers.

That doesn’t mean the U.S. doesn’t have a big dog in this fight.

As we know from those famous WikiLeaks memos, Saudi Arabia’s enemies include Syria and Iran, both Shiite states (lets not forget that show-throwing incident a few months ago in Cairo when Sunni clerics took the opportunity to dress down Ahmadinejad). So Saudi’s King Abdullah is clearly clinging to that sophisticated foreign policy maxim, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

For the U.S., given that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 terrorists were Saudi nationals — the same kind of al Qaeda fighters now reaping the benefits of tens of millions in U.S. aid across the Syrian countryside — the mantra appears to have been altered to accommodate our desperate dependence on foreign oil and our government’s political loyalties to big oil companies invested in the status quo — “the friend of my friend is no longer my enemy,” says the United States.

And now we are giving them lethal weapons, say critics, via the same kind of straw purchaser arrangement that Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), under the aegis of Eric Holder’s Department of Justice, used to send more than 2,000 untraceable combat-grade weapons to Mexico’s cartels through the operation known as “Fast and Furious” — an ATF adventure that Representative Connie Mack (R-Fla) has called, on the record, during a congressional hearing whose main witness was Secretary Hillary Clinton, “a violation of the Export Control Act,” a U.S. statute designed to prevent foreign entities from the illegal acquisition of U.S.-manufactured arms.

Fast and Furious has faded from the screen, largely because no U.S. attorney is willing to take on a criminal or civil complaint against his own boss, Eric Holder. But insiders say the blowback from the ATF debacle, involving the murder of a U.S. border patrol agent with a weapon supplied to his killers by the U.S. government, is probably the reason the administration has designed such a convoluted process to send lethal weapons to jihadist militias, supported by Saudi Arabia and fighting the Assad regime: The U.S., according to this plan, isn’t the guns. We’re only the money.

From the New York Times, March 3, 2013:

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the Obama administration supported efforts by Middle Eastern nations to send arms to the opposition in Syria, and had had discussions with foreign officials to emphasize that those arms should go to moderate forces rather than to extremists. “We had a discussion about the types of weapons that are being transferred and by whom,” Mr. Kerry said after a meeting with the prime minister of Qatar, which has been involved in arming the Syrian opposition. “We did discuss the question of the ability to try to guarantee that it’s going to the right people and to the moderate Syrian opposition coalition.” Mr. Kerry’s comments were the most direct public affirmation to date that the Obama administration was supporting efforts to arm the Syrian resistance, provided that the arms are sent by other nations and that care is taken to direct them to factions the United States supports. His comments also signal a more transparent effort to coordinate military assistance for the opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.

And here’s the “I’m rubber and you’re glue” Kerryism you can expect to hear repeated down the road at a congressional hearing aimed at discovering how those anti-aircraft weapons supplied to al Qaeda brigades in Syria ended up taking down U.S. passenger planes on takeoff from JFK, Dulles, or Miami airports:

Mr. Kerry said the Obama administration had gained new confidence in recent months that the Syrian opposition coalition could minimize the risk that weapons would fall into hostile hands.

And there’s more:

Kerry asserted that there was no need for the United States to provide arms now because other nations were already sending enough, but did not rule out the option. The arms supply from other nations “informs the president’s decision about what is needed, and what the United States is prepared to do at this point at time,” he said. Under a covert program, the Central Intelligence Agency has been training Syrian opposition fighters in Jordan, but has stopped short of giving the rebels arms.

Now I’d say that’s some world-class sleight of hand there, especially the part about there being “no need for the United States to provide arms…because other nations are already sending enough.” What he forgot to say was we, and the U.K., are paying these other nations to send the weapons.

Let’s take a look at the Huffington Post’s “Saudi Arabia Arming Syrian Rebels“:

Saudi Arabia has been supplying Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad with arms bought from Croatia, according to The New York Times.Citing unnamed US and Western officials, the newspaper reported late Monday that the Saudi-financed “large purchase of infantry weapons” was part of an “undeclared surplus” of arms left over from the Balkan wars in the 1990s and that they began reaching anti-regime fighters via Jordan in December. That was when many Yugoslav weapons started showing up in YouTube videos posted by rebels, it said. Since then, The Times added, officials said “multiple planeloads” of weapons have left Croatia, with one quoted as saying the shipments included “thousands of rifles and hundreds of machine guns,” as well as an “unknown quantity of ammunition.” A spokeswoman for the Croatian foreign ministry told The Times that, since the start of the Arab Spring, the Balkan country had not sold any weapons to either Saudi Arabia or the Syrian rebels. Saudi and Jordanian officials meanwhile declined to comment, the newspaper added. The Times said Washington’s role, if any at all, was unclear. However, it quoted one senior US official as describing the shipments as “a maturing of the opposition’s logistical pipeline.”

Key word: “unclear.”

75 Planes with 3,000 Tons of Weapons from Croatia to Syria

And then we have CroatiaWeek, a March 8 report:

Croatian daily newspaper Jutarnji list reported last night that from the start of November last year, till February this year, 75 planes flew out from Zagreb Airport with over 3,000 tons of weapons and ammunition bound for Syrian rebels. The newspaper, quoting diplomatic sources, says that besides Croatian weapons the planes were full with weapons from other European countries including the UK. The weapons were organised by the United States of America. Sources say that the first few flights to leave Croatia bound for Syria with weapons were operated by Turkish Cargo, which is owned by Turkish Airlines. After those flights, Jordanian International Air Cargo took over the flights. The deal to provide arms to the rebels was made between American officials and the Croatian Ambassador to the US. Croatia recently withdraw its troops from the UN observer mission in Golan Heights, an area between Israel and Syria after the New York Times reported the story.

Doesn’t sound like the Croatians are particularly interested in keeping America’s secrets, does it? Bad form, certainly, given the lengths to which Croat ex-pats in the U.S. (The Letica Corporation in the U.S. went beyond the call of duty in garnering funds channeled through the Croatian American Association in D.C. and rallying Congress to send arms and trainers to the Croatians they described as “simple farmers without weapons or military skills.”) The appeal for U.S. aid by the Croatians in the early 1990s drew on the same emotional triggers — human rights, the slaughter of innocents — that the Syrian opposition feeds to the press today. Today, Croatia is a hub for criminal activities, the “Balkan Route” is a new pathway for drug distribution, and corruption is at an all-time high.

Paper, Rock, Scissors

A very simple explanation of our involvement in this mess for simple readers. The Sunni Muslim sect called the Wahhabis, led by Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab, struck a deal several generations ago with the soon-to-become “Royal” House of Muhammad ibn Saud whereby the ruling family would give these very conservative (remember, Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where Sharia law still prohibits women from driving their own cars) Wahabbi clerics the political and financial (from oil) power to fuel what these Mullahs and Inmans envisioned as a global religious revival.

Saudi Arabia, its royal family, Aramco — the world’s leading exporter of oil — may be the rock, but it’s the Wahhabis, the conservative Sunni sect that created the Muslim Brotherhood and now houses al Qaeda and Salafist militias operating under various competing leaders — that’s the paper.

And you know what that means.

Saudi Arabia’s royal Family may control Aramco and have billions in accounts and assets across the world, but their religious partners, with their revivalist agenda and control over the minds and hearts of the common man, have the power. And more bad news: There’s a rumor among the Saudi religious community that King Abdullah’s family is, at heart, more secular than not, willing, if not “true” believers in living it up in this world rather than the next.

Paper takes rock.

Then there’s us — the United States, the scissors. Why? Because we could, by dint of our military might and stealthy use of economic incentives, undermine, eliminate and destroy the building momentum of Sunni jihadism (the paper, remember?), the religious bedrock on which the flimsy capitalistic monument called Aramco (the government of Saudi Arabia) stands. And it’s happened in a limited way: Scissors has cut paper every time a secret team of SEALS or U.S. agents has taken out a terrorist cell or a member of al Qaeda overseas.

But these are limited overtures, similar to the paid-for permission the U.S. obtains from Pakistan’s authorities to drop clusters of drones over villages in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

The rub, you see, is that while paper wraps rock, rock also crushes scissors because neither the U.S. nor the rest of its allies can sustain their economies without Saudi oil, without the intermediary skills and continued survival of the House of Saud.

And that, my friends, is all she wrote. For now.



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.

Great Decisions Discussion group