Illegal arms trade legalised

The fallout caused by the war in Libya has yet to settle, while the next military intervention is already planned. The Maghreb and Near East are flooded with heavy arms, smuggled out of Libyan arsenals. Syria is an important destination.


The BBC cites the UN Security Council's Group of Experts, which monitors the arms embargo imposed on Libya during the 2011 uprising. In April 2013 the Group points at illicit transfers of "heavy and light weapons, including man-portable air defence systems, small arms and related ammunition and explosives and mines. (…) The significant size of some shipments and the logistics involved suggest that representatives of the Libyan local authorities might have at least been aware of the transfers, if not actually directly involved." In reality, the situation is even worse.
Three cases give proof of the sheer seize of the deliveries; the involvement of Qatar as an important supplier; and more governments, also Western, involvement in the illegal arms shipments.

Case one

In April 2012 a vessel, the Letfallah II, was stopped by the Libanese authorities. “The ship left Misrata, Libya, on a date prior to 11 a.m. on 14 April 2012.” The UN Group of Experts confirmed that advanced weapon systems and components were aboard, such as SA-7b air defence systems and Milan missiles.

When questioned during the shareholders meeting of EADS, Tom Enders, CEO of this big European arms producer, major partner in MBDA – the producer of the Milan missiles – wavered away any suggsetion that the company could help the UN Group of Experts by informing them to which countries the missiles were exported. Enders, with his known arrogance, stated that governments not companies are responsible to provide this kind of information. But the French government did not give the information either, when the Group requested it. Arms export and ethical policies are easily forgotten by governments and companies when they want to cover the murky world of arms trade.

Case two

In December 2012, the UN stated that Libya, Qatar and Saudi-Arabia were the most important sources of arms shipments to Syria (see http://sargasso.nl/waar-komen-de-wapens-in-de-syrie-vandaan/) . Let us focus on Qatar: The latest case of Qatar arming Syrian fighters is reported on August 28, 2013 by Jane's Defence Weekly which writes that Qatar is supplying FN-6 portable guided missiles against planes (MANPADS) to the Syrian rebels. (For more on MANPADS in Syria see the Rogueadventurer.) There are many more cases of Qatari involvement in illegal shipments of arms to Syrian fighters. E.g. the Group of Experts found a box of .50 ammunition in the Letfallah which was sent to the armed forces of Qatar. The Group also found Belgium FN assault riffles on their way to Syria, originally sold to Qatar around 1980 (contrary to EADS, FN had no problem with informing the Group on this). Of course the Qatari authorities denied everything. Governments can be very unhelpful to trace illegal arms shipments. When it matters?

Case three

One last explosive piece of information about illegal arms smuggling to Syria comes from the US embassy in Benghazi. CNN unveiled that at the time the embassy was targeted in August 2012 (four people were killed, including U.S. Ambassador Stevens), CIA-personnel was smuggling SA-7 missiles to Syria. One of the numerous twitter reactions to this covered illegal arms trade by a government body was: “So instead of Iran-Contra, we have Libya-Syria gun running.” (If you are too young to have heard about the Iran Contra scandal, just Gooogle it.)

On September 6, the United Kingdom implemented a new arms export policy concerning Syria. This so-called Export Control (Syria sanctions) Order 2013 removes Syria from the list of controlled destinations. This will enable the government to arm the Free Syrian Army and other groups under the arms export control regime. It opens a new and this time legal channel to arms Syrian opposition groups. (For the cons on this policy and the things to do see http://www.caat.org.uk/resources/countries/syria/ ) Making legal what was illegal changes the situation de jure but not de facto. Arms are still traveling from conflict to conflict and fanning the flames of violence. And the war in Syria will only add more weapons to the stream. Up to the next war .


Martin Broek 05/09/2013

Research supported by Fonds Vredesprojecten