Oust-Assad operation brings CIA to Syrian war

From helping Arab governments shop for weapons, CIA is also deciding who receives them.

With help from the CIA, Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment for the uprising against President Bashar Assad, according to air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders.

The airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, the data shows. It has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports.

As it evolved, the airlift correlated with shifts in the war within Syria, as rebels drove Syria’s army from territory by the middle of last year. And even as the Obama administration has publicly refused to give more than ‘nonlethal’ aid to the rebels, the involvement of the CIA in the arms shipments – albeit mostly in a consultative role, US officials say – has shown that the United States is more willing to help its Arab allies support the lethal side of the civil war.

From offices at secret locations, US intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive, according to US officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. The CIA declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them.

The shipments also highlight the competition for Syria’s future between Sunni Muslim states and Iran, the Shiite theocracy that remains Assad’s main ally. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iraq on Sunday to do more to halt Iranian arms shipments through its airspace; he did so even as the most recent military cargo flight from Qatar for the rebels landed at Esenboga early Sunday night. Syrian opposition figures and some US lawmakers and officials have argued that Russian and Iranian arms shipments to support Assad’s government have made arming the rebels more necessary.

Most of the cargo flights have occurred since November, after the presidential election in the US and as the Turkish and Arab governments grew more frustrated by the rebels’ slow progress against Assad’s well-equipped military. The flights also became more frequent as the humanitarian crisis inside Syria deepened in the winter and cascades of refugees crossed into neighboring countries.

The Turkish government has had oversight over much of the programme, down to affixing transponders to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey so it might monitor shipments as they move by land into Syria, officials said. The scale of shipments was very large, according to officials familiar with the pipeline and to an arms-trafficking investigator who assembled data on the cargo planes involved. “A conservative estimate of the payload of these flights would be 3,500 tons of military equipment,” said Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, who monitors illicit arms transfers.

“The intensity and frequency of these flights,” he added, are “suggestive of a well-planned and coordinated clandestine military logistics operation.” Although rebel commanders and the data indicate that Qatar and Saudi Arabia had been shipping military materials via Turkey to the opposition since early and late 2102, respectively, a major hurdle was removed late last fall after the Turkish government agreed to allow the pace of air shipments to accelerate, officials said.

Simultaneously, arms and equipment were being purchased by Saudi Arabia in Croatia and flown to Jordan on Jordanian cargo planes for rebels working in southern Syria and for retransfer to Turkey for rebels groups operating from there, several officials said. These multiple logistics streams throughout the winter formed what one former US official who was briefed on the programme called “a cataract of weaponry.”

US officials, rebel commanders and a Turkish opposition politician have described the Arab roles as an open secret, but have also said the programme is fraught with risk, including the possibility of drawing Turkey or Jordan actively into the war and of provoking military action by Iran. Still, rebel commanders have criticised the shipments as insufficient, saying the quantities of weapons they receive are too small and the types too light to fight Assad’s military effectively. They also accused those distributing the weapons of being parsimonious or corrupt.

The former US official noted that the size of the shipments and the degree of distributions are voluminous. “People hear the amounts flowing in, and it is huge,” he said. “But they burn through a million rounds of ammo in two weeks.”

Degree of influence

The US government became involved, the former US official said, in part because there was a sense that other states would arm the rebels anyhow. The CIA role in facilitating the shipments, he said, gave the US a degree of influence over the process, including trying to steer weapons away from Islamist groups and persuading donors to withhold portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft.

Several of the Saudi flights were spotted coming and going at Ankara by civilians, who alerted opposition politicians in Turkey.

“The use of Turkish airspace at such a critical time, with the conflict in Syria across our borders, and by foreign planes from countries that are known to be central to the conflict, defines Turkey as a party in the conflict,” said Attilla Kart, a member of the Turkish Parliament from the CHP opposition party, who confirmed details about several Saudi shipments.

“The government has the responsibility to respond to these claims.” Turkish and Saudi Arabian officials declined to discuss the flights or any arms transfers. The Turkish government has not officially approved military aid to Syrian rebels. Croatia and Jordan both denied any role in moving arms to the Syrian rebels. Jordanian aviation officials went so far as to insist that no cargo flights occurred.

The director of cargo for Jordanian International Air Cargo, Muhammad Jubour, insisted on March 7 that his firm had no knowledge of any flights to or from Croatia. “This is all lies,” he said. “We never did any such thing.”

A regional air traffic official who has been researching the flights confirmed the flight data, and offered an explanation. “Jordanian International Air Cargo,” the official said, “is a front company for Jordan’s air force.”

After being informed of the air-traffic control and transponder data that showed the plane’s routes, Jubour, from the cargo company, claimed that his firm did not own any Ilyushin cargo planes. Asked why his employer’s website still displayed images of two Ilyushin-76MF’s and text claiming they were part of the company fleet, Jubour had no immediate reply. That night the company’s website was taken down.

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