The Guns of Zagreb
What exactly is the role of the U.S. Government and its close friends in Syria’s civil war? As that ugly conflict becomes increasingly protracted, with 70,000 lives lost at least, and no resolution in sight, DC whispers – rather loud ones – have it that the Obama administration has been pondering a more direct role in Syria’s fratricide. The Washington Post reported this on February 26, noting, however, “The administration has not provided direct aid to the military or political side of the opposition throughout the two-year-old conflict, and U.S. officials remain opposed to providing weapons to the rebels.” Is that, well, true? Rumors on the spook circuit for some time have spoken of all sorts of indirect military aid to the rebels, and it’s clear the administration’s denial hinges on the precise meaning of “direct aid” and perhaps what “is” is.
Back in January, savvy watchers, particularly the Moses Brown Blog, noted a whole lot of anti-tank weaponry from the former Yugoslavia showing up in the hands of the Syrian resistance. Moreover, the potent weaponry, though light, was having an impact, notably a lot more disabled armor for the Syrian Army. In the Balkans there was much discussion of just whose weapons these were, though those with a close eye quickly fingered Croatia as the main suspect. In the last week of February, the Zagreb daily Jutarnji list ran several articles making clear what had made it into the hands of Syrian rebels. The weapons involved included systems which the Croatian military has a great deal of, indeed an excess, such as M79 Osa (Wasp) and RPG-22 anti-tank rocket launchers, RGB-6 grenade launchers, M60 recoilless rifles: all light and man-portable but lethal systems.
Jutarnji list‘s reporting added that the weapons had reached Syria through a series of flights out of Zagreb’s Pleso airport by IL-76s owned by a Jordanian firm called International Air Cargo, specifically on December 4 and 23, January 6, and February 18. The flights were handled carefully by authorities and had no known manifests. Soon the The New York Times got wind of this and ran a detailed story stating that Saudi money was behind it all – a plausible assertion give the regional dynamics of the Syrian war and Riyadh’s long history of doing just this sort of thing.
Confronted by the allegations, including a lot of videos popping up on YouTube showing Syrian rebels using Croatian weapons in action, Zagreb came out with some non-denial denials, conceding that weapons from Croatian stocks indeed had reached Syria, without explaining exactly how. Significantly, unnamed officials clarified that the Croatian Defense Ministry was not directly involved, while implying that private firms were. In all, more questions than answers. As a safety measure, Croatia removed its UN peacekeepers from the Golan Heights, lest they become an attractive target due to their country’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.
More answers appeared late this week, again in Jutarnji list, which fleshed out its earlier reporting with a lot more detail. It asserted that between November and February, seventy-five flights out of Pleso secretly brought an astonishing 3,000 tons of weaponry to the Syrian resistance. Much of the weaponry came from Croatian stocks, but some was taken from other European countries too, though which ones is not yet clear. Of greatest significance, the report claimed that the entire operation – which involved Croatia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan, plus some help from the United Kingdom – was orchestrated by the Americans. Zagreb got involved when friends in Washington, DC asked them to. End of story.
None of this is exactly shocking, particularly given Croatia’s history in the 1990s of being a conduit for secret arms shipments with American backing. Zagreb’s military took a significant cut of the weapons – funded by Iran and Saudi Arabia – destined for Bosnia’s Muslims during that country’s civil war, which were routed through Pleso airport as well. That, too, was a poorly guarded secret that wound up in the media before long, though America’s deep involvement only emerged later, when no one was really interested any longer. Similarly, no one wanted to ask too many questions back in 1995 when mysterious “black flights” were dropping weapons to Bosnian Muslims, in violation of the UN arms embargo, though it was clear Croatia was involved, as was NATO at least implicitly, since the Atlantic Alliance controlled the airspace in the region.
Has Croatia again gone to bat, as a faithful friend, in a secret war being waged by America and NATO, this time across the Mediterranean? It certainly looks that way. As a reward for its loyalty, Croatia was admitted to NATO in 2009, and Zagreb is on track to gain admission to the EU this summer too, despite many questions raised in Brussels about Croatia’s actual readiness for admission. German and Austrian backing, with perhaps a bit of helpful nudge from the Americans, looks set to override any doubts.
Quid pro quo is well understood in Southeastern Europe. Of particular concern is where that 3,000 tons of arms actually went. Croatian reports have suggested that some of the weapons have landed in the hands of the Islamist rebels, not just the more secular-minded resistance. This does not surprise, given the long track record of Western arms finding their way to Friends of Osama. Watch this space for more as it happens; this story isn’t over yet.
[As ever, the author's comments are his alone and in no way reflective of the views of the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.]