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As Belgrade slept on the night of Nov. 28, 2015, the giant turbofan engines of a Belarusian Ruby Star Ilyushin II-76 cargo plane roared into life, its hull laden with arms destined for faraway conflicts.
Rising from the tarmac of Nikola Tesla airport, the hulking aircraft pierced the Serbian mist to head towards Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
It was one of at least 68 flights that in just 13 months transported thousands of tons of Central and Eastern European weapons and ammunition to Middle Eastern states and Turkey which, in turn, funneled arms into brutal civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has found. The flights are just a small part of €1.2 billion in arms deals between the countries since 2012, when parts of the Arab Spring turned into an armed conflict.
Meanwhile, over the past two years, as the thousands of tons of weapons fly south, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled north from the conflicts that have killed more than 400,000 people. But while Europe has shut down the refugee route, the billion euro pipeline sending arms by plane and ship to the Middle East remains open – and very lucrative.
It is a trade that is almost certainly illegal, according to arms and human rights experts.
“The evidence points towards systematic diversion of weapons to armed groups accused of committing serious human rights violations. If this is the case, the transfers are illegal under the [United Nations’ Arms Trade Treaty] and other international law and should cease immediately,” said Patrick Wilcken, an arms-control researcher at Amnesty International who reviewed the evidence collected by reporters.
But with hundreds of millions of euros at stake and regional weapons factories working overtime, countries have a strong incentive to let the business flourish. Arms export licenses, which are supposed to guarantee the final destination of the goods, have been granted despite ample evidence that weapons are being diverted to Syrian and other to armed groups accused of widespread human rights abuses and atrocities.
Robert Stephen Ford, U.S. Ambassador to Syria between 2011 and 2014, told BIRN and OCCRP that the trade is coordinated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Turkey and Gulf states through centers in Jordan and Turkey, although in practice weapon supplies often bypass this process.
BIRN and OCCRP examined arms export data, UN reports, flight records, and weapons contracts during a year-long investigation that reveals how thousands of assault rifles, mortar shells, rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons, and heavy machine guns are pouring into the troubled region, originating from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia.
Since the escalation of the Syrian conflict in 2012, these eight countries have approved the shipment of at least €1.2 billion worth of weapons and ammunition to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Turkey.
The figure is likely much bigger. Data on arms export licenses for four out of eight countries were not available for 2015 and seven out of eight countries for 2016. The four recipient countries are key arms suppliers to Syria and Yemen with little or no history of buying from Central and Eastern Europe prior to 2012. And the pace of the transfers is not slowing, with some of the biggest deals approved in 2015.
Central and Eastern European weapons and ammunition, identified from more than 50 videos and photos posted on social media, are now in use by Western-backed Free Syrian Army , but also in the hands of fighters of Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Sham, Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), factions fighting for Syrian President Bashar-al Assad and Sunni forces in Yemen.
Markings on some of the weapons identifying the origin and date of production reveal significant quantities have come off production lines as recently as 2015.
Out of the €1.2 billion in weapons and ammunition approved for export, about €500 million is known to have been delivered, according to UN trade information and national arms export reports.
The frequency and number of cargo flights – BIRN and OCCRP identified at least 68 in just over one year – reveal a steady flow of weapons from Central and Eastern Europe airports to military bases and airports in the Middle East.
The most commonly used aircraft - the Ilyushin II-76 - can carry up to 50 tons of cargo or approximately 16,000 AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles or three million bullets. Others, including the Boeing 747, are capable of hauling at least twice that amount.
But arms and ammunitions are not only coming by air. Reporters also have identified at least three shipments made by the US military from Black Sea ports carrying an estimated 4,700 tons of weapons and ammunition to the Red Sea since December 2015.
One Swedish member of the EU parliament calls the trade shameful.
“Maybe they – Bulgaria, Slovakia and Croatia – do not feel ashamed at all but I think they should,” said Bodil Valero, who also served as the rapporteur for the EU’s last arms report.
“Countries selling arms to Saudi Arabia or the Middle East-North Africa region are not carrying out good risk assessments and, as a result, are in breach of EU and national law.”
OCCRP and BIRN talked to government representatives in Croatia, Czech Republic, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovakia who all responded similarly saying that they are meeting their international obligations. Some cited that Saudi Arabia is not on any international weapons black lists and other said their countries are not responsible if weapons have been diverted.
The Central and Eastern European weapons pipeline can be traced to the winter of 2012, when dozens of cargo planes, loaded with Saudi-purchased Yugoslav-era weapons and ammunition, began leaving Zagreb bound for Jordan. Soon after, the first footage of Croatian weapons in use emerged from the battleground of Syria.
According to a New York Times report from February 2013, a senior Croatian official offered the country’s stockpiles of old weapons for Syria during a visit to Washington in the summer of 2012. Zagreb was later put in touch with the Saudis, who bankrolled the purchases, while the CIA helped with logistics of an airlift that began late that year.
While Croatia’s government has consistently denied any role in shipping weapons to Syria, former US ambassador to Syria Ford confirmed to BIRN and OCCRP the Time’s account from an anonymous source of how the deal was hatched. He said he was not at liberty to discuss it further.
This was just the beginning of an unprecedented flow of weapons from eight countries into the Middle East, as the pipeline expanded to include stocks from seven other countries. Local arms dealers sourced arms and ammunition from their home countries and brokered the sale of ammunition from Ukraine and Belarus, and even attempted to secure Soviet-made anti-tank systems bought from the UK, as a Europe-wide arms bazaar ensued.
Prior to the Arab Spring in 2011, the arms trade between Eastern Europe and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Turkey – four key supporters of Syria’s fractured opposition – was negligible to non-existent, according to analysis of export data.
But that changed in 2012. Between that year and 2016, eight Eastern European countries approved at least €806 million worth of weapons and ammunition exports to Saudi Arabia, according to national and EU arms export reports as well as government sources.
Jordan secured €155 million worth of export licenses starting in 2012, while UAE netted €135 million and Turkey €87 million, bringing the total to €1.2 billion.
Qatar, another key supplier of equipment to the Syrian opposition, does not show up in export licenses from Central and Eastern Europe.
Jeremy Binnie, Middle East arms expert for Jane’s Defense Weekly, a publication widely regarded as the most trusted source of defense and security information, said the bulk of the weapon exports from Eastern Europe would likely be destined for Syria, and to a lesser extent Yemen and Libya.
“With a few exceptions, the militaries of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE and Turkey use Western infantry weapons and ammunition, rather than Soviet-designed counterparts,” said Binnie. “It consequently seems likely that large shipments of such materiel being acquired by – or sent to – those countries are destined for their allies in Syria, Yemen, and Libya.”
BIRN and OCCRP obtained confidential documents from Serbia’s Ministry of Defense and minutes from a series of inter-ministerial meetings in 2013. The documents show the Ministry raised concerns that deliveries to Saudi Arabia would be diverted to Syria, pointing out that the Saudis do not use Central and Eastern European stock and have a history of supplying the Syrian opposition. The Ministry turned down the export license for Saudi only to reverse course more than one year later and approve new arms shipments citing national interest.
Saudi security forces, while mostly armed by Western producers, are known to use limited amounts of Central and Eastern European equipment. This includes Czech-produced military trucks and some Romanian-made assault rifles. But even arms exports destined for use by Saudi forces are proving controversial, given their involvement in the conflict in Yemen.
The Netherlands became the first EU country to halt arms exports to Saudi Arabia as a result of civilian deaths in Yemen’s civil war, and the European Parliament has called for an EU-wide arms embargo.
Weapons from Central and Eastern Europe are delivered to the Middle East by cargo flights and ships. By identifying the planes and ships delivering weapons, reporters were able to track the flow of arms in real time.
Detailed analysis of airport timetables, cargo carrier history, flight tracking data, and air traffic control sources helped pinpoint 68 flights which carried weapons to Middle Eastern conflicts in the past 13 months. Belgrade, Sofia and Bratislava emerged as the main hubs for the airlift.
Most frequent were flights operated from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. The flights were either confirmed as carrying weapons, were headed to military bases in Saudi Arabia or the UAE or were carried out by regular arms shippers.
Many of these flights made an additional stop in Central and Eastern Europe – meaning they were likely picking up more weapons and ammunition – before flying to their final destination.
EU flight statistics provide further evidence of the scale of the operation. They reveal that planes flying from Bulgaria and Slovakia have delivered 2,268 tons of cargo – equal to 44 flights with the most commonly used aircraft - the Ilyushin II-76 – since the summer of 2014 to the same military bases in Saudi Arabia and UAE pinpointed by BIRN and OCCRP.
Arms bought for Syria by the Saudis, Turks, Jordanians and the UAE are then routed through two secret command centers – called Military Operation Centers (MOC) – in Jordan and Turkey, according to Ford, the former US Ambassador to Syria.
These units – staffed by security and military officials from the Gulf, Turkey, Jordan and the US – coordinate the distribution of weapons to vetted Syrian opposition groups, according to information from the Atlanta-based Carter Center, a think tank which has a unit monitoring the conflict.
“Each of the countries involved in helping the armed opposition retained final decision-making authority about which groups in Syria received assistance,” Ford said.
A cache of leaked cargo carrier documents provides further clues to how the Saudi military supplies Syrian rebels.
According to the documents obtained by BIRN and OCCRP, the Moldovan company AeroTransCargo made six flights in the summer of 2015 carrying at least 250 tons of ammunition between military bases in Saudi Arabia and Esenboga International Airport in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, reportedly an arrival point for weapons and ammunition for Syrian rebels.
Pieter Wezeman, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a leading organization in tracking arms exports, said he suspects the flights are part of the logistical operation to supply ammunition to Syrian rebels.
From the MOCs, weapons are then transported by road to the Syrian border or airdropped by military planes.
A Free Syrian Army commander from Aleppo, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his safety, told BIRN and OCCRP that weapons from Central and Eastern Europe were distributed from centrally controlled headquarters in Syria. “We don’t care about the county of origin, we just know it is from Eastern Europe,” he said.
The Saudis and Turks also provided weapons directly to Islamist groups not supported by the US and who have sometimes ended up fighting MOC-backed factions, Ford added.
The Saudis are also known to have airdropped materiel, including what appeared to be Serbian-made assault rifles to its allies in Yemen.
Ford said that while he was not personally involved in negotiations with Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania over the supply of weapons to Syria, he believes that the CIA is likely to have played a role.
“For operations of this type it would be difficult for me to imagine that there wasn’t some coordination between the intelligence services, but it may have been confined strictly to intelligence channels,” he said.
The US may not have just played a role in the logistics behind delivering Gulf-sponsored weapons from Eastern Europe to the Syrian rebels. Through its Department of Defense’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM), it has also bought and delivered vast quantities of military goods from Eastern Europe for the Syrian opposition as part of a US$ 500 million train and equip program.
Since December 2015, SOCOM has commissioned three cargo ships to transport 4,700 tons of arms and ammunition from ports of Constanta in Romania and Burgas in Bulgaria to the Middle East likely as part of the covert supply of weapons to Syria.
The shipments included heavy machine guns, rocket launchers and anti-tank weapons – as well as bullets, mortars, grenades, rockets and explosives, according to US procurement documents.
The origin of arms shipped by SOCOM is unknown and the material listed in transport documents is available from stockpiles across Central and Eastern Europe.
Not long after one of the deliveries, SOCOM supported Kurdish groups published an image on Twitter and Facebook showing a warehouse piled with US-brokered ammunition boxes in northern Syria.
SOCOM would not confirm or deny that the shipments were bound for Syria.
US procurement records also reveal that SOCOM secured from 2014 to 2016 at least US$ 27 million worth of Bulgarian and US$ 12 million in Serbian weapons and ammunition for covert operations and Syrian rebels.
Arms control researcher Wilcken said the Central and Eastern Europe had been well positioned to cash in on the huge surge in demand for weapons following the Arab Spring.
“Geographical proximity and lax export controls have put some Balkan states in a pole position to profit from this trade, in some instances with covert US assistance,” he added. “Eastern Europe is rehabilitating Cold War arms industries which are expanding and becoming profitable again.”
Serbian Prime Minister Vucic boasted recently that his country could produce five times the amount of arms it currently makes and still not meet the demand.
“Unfortunately in some parts of the world they are at war more than ever and everything you produce, on any side of the world you can sell it,” he said.
Arms manufacturers from BiH and Serbia are running at full capacity with some adding extra shifts and others not taking new orders.
Saudi Arabia’s top officials – more used to negotiating multi-billion-dollar fighter-jet deals with Western defense giants – have been forced to deal with a handful of small-time arms brokers operating in Eastern Europe with access to weapons such as AK-47s and rocket launchers.
Middlemen such as Serbia’s CPR Impex and Slovakia’s Eldon have played a critical role in supplying weapons and ammunition to the Middle East.
The inventory of each delivery is usually unknown due to the secrecy surrounding arms deals, but two end-user certificates and one export license, obtained by BIRN and OCCRP, reveal the extraordinary scope of the buy-up for Syrian beneficiaries.
For example, Saudi Ministry of Defense expressed its interest in buying from Serbian arms dealer CPR Impex a number of weapons including hundreds of aging T-55 and T-72 tanks, millions of rounds of ammunition, multi-launch missile systems and rocket launchers. Weapons and ammunition listed were produced in the former Yugoslavia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic.
An export license issued to a little-known Slovakian company called Eldon in January 2015 granted the firm the right to transport thousands of Eastern European rocket-propelled grenade launchers, heavy machine guns and almost a million bullets worth almost €32 million to Saudi Arabia.
BIRN and OCCRP’s analysis of social media shows weapons that originated from the former states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and Serbia, Croatia and Bulgaria are now present on the battlefields of Syria and Yemen.
While experts believe the countries continue to shirk their responsibility, the weapons pipeline adds more and more fuel to a white hot conflict that leads to more and more misery.
“Proliferation of arms to the region has caused untold human suffering; huge numbers of people have been displaced and parties to the conflict have committed serious human rights violations including abductions, executions, enforced disappearances, torture and rape,” said Wilcken.
Additional reporting by Atanas Tchobanov, Dusica Tomovic, Jelena Cosic, Jelena Svircic, Lindita Cela, Pavla Holcova and RISE Moldova.
Graphics by Sergiu Brega and Cristi Dimitriu.