Credit: Airman 1st Class Kenny Holston for the US Air Force

German Concerns Spark Pentagon Reroute of Syria-Bound Arms

The Pentagon’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM) ordered its contractors to stop trucking Soviet-style weapons through US military bases in Germany after officials in Berlin became concerned about the deliveries.

The arms are sourced from across Central and Eastern Europe as part of the Pentagon’s strategy of arming rebels in Syria in their fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). (See: The Pentagon’s US$ 2.2 Billion Pipeline).

German authorities had “become very sensitive” to requests for transit licenses from Pentagon contractors, according to a leaked Pentagon email from December 23, 2016, recently obtained by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

The email, sent by SOCOM to its US contractors, noted that the State Department would take over responsibility for requesting new transit licenses, as the permits were “taking longer than normal due to large number of requests and questions [from German authorities].”

Berlin declined to comment on the nature of its “sensitivities,” but they may be linked to German laws – reflecting the EU Common Position – that dictate that transit licenses for weapons need to be justified with a legal document called an end user certificate which clearly states who will be the final recipient.

However, licenses obtained by BIRN and OCCRP list SOCOM as the final “end user” and specify individual US military bases in friendly countries – not Syria – as the destination.

It’s not just a question of legal technicalities. Jan Paul van Aken, a German legislator who sits on the Bundestag’s arms control committee, questioned the rationale behind the policy. It is “madness,” he told reporters, to continue sending arms to a region that “lacks everything except for weapons.”

“Once again it is through Ramstein [a US air base in Germany] that the USA organizes its dirty wars all around the world,” he said.

Germany: A Logistical Hub

Ramstein, as well as the nearby ammunitions depot at Miesau, have long been key logistical hubs for the US military. But their role in the Syria supply-line has never been acknowledged by either Washington or Berlin.

In February, Hans-Christian Ströbele, a Green MP, wrote to the German government asking whether it had any information about weapons deliveries via Ramstein to Syria. Foreign Ministry official Markus Ederer replied that it did not, according to correspondence obtained by reporters.

In response to reporters’ questions, Lara Bolliger, a SOCOM spokesperson, said that it “does not and has not previously stored or transited via contracted flights [any] Syrian bound foreign ammunition and/or weapons through any US bases in Germany.”

But according to a contractor who spoke on condition of anonymity, US bases in Germany and Romania had formed a key part of the Pentagon’s vast logistical operation, which sent over $700 million in Soviet-style arms to Syria between September 2015 and May 2017

A wealth of other evidence – including the leaked SOCOM email, flight cargo lists, UN arms export reports, and transit license information – confirms this account and yields additional details.

Following an official request from reporters, Germany’s economic ministry revealed an upsurge in weapons transiting to or from US military bases through German territory and on to other countries in 2016.

According to the ministry, it approved 11 land transit licenses to or from US military bases in Germany that year. Over the previous decade, the number of licenses issued in a given year ranged from one to six.

Three further approvals were made in the first five months of 2017, but authorities declined to provide additional information.

UN arms export reports for 2015 and 2016 also recorded three weapons transfers from Serbia to Germany with the end user identified as a “US military base in Germany.” Two other 2016 transfers noted Serbian exports to a “US military base in Romania.” Such designations are highly unusual – a typical end-user certificate indicates the buyer of the arms, such as a country’s defense ministry.

New Routes, Extra Costs

A vast trove of recently leaked emails and documents related to Silk Way, a state-owned Azerbaijani air cargo carrier, provide further evidence of SOCOM’s use of German bases in 2016 – and of the need to reroute after Berlin’s concerns emerged.

They revealed that, in January 2017, just weeks after SOCOM’s email warning of Germany’s sensitivity, 20,000 grenades were rerouted to a SOCOM depot in Afghanistan, which at the time was used as a temporary storage point for Syria-bound arms shipments, due to “last minute changes to program circumstances.” The shipment’s original destination was the US’s depot in Miesau, Germany.

The contractor said he believed private deliveries to German bases following the SOCOM diktat had not since resumed.

The challenges the Pentagon has encountered in Germany have begun to affect the program’s budget. A March report noted that an extra $23 million was needed to cover additional transportation costs over the next few months because of an “inability to consolidate non-US source weapons and equipment in Europe.”

The Pentagon refused to confirm or deny whether the expensive changes in plan were a result of Germany’s concerns, adding that such decisions are made due to “diplomatic” and “logistical” reasons.

The details of the revised route remain unclear, but according to the leaked Silk Way documents, new transit points are now in use. In May and June, some arms shipments were flown via Azerbaijan to Croatia, and others went from Kazakhstan to Chicago and Frankfurt, suggesting several new paths to the conflict zone.

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