The EU’s 28th member and Al Nusrah’s arms

The Brown Moses blog has gained international acclaim for identifying the use of weapons in the two year old Syrian war. One of the more significant findings of the blog are pictures of what appear to be Croatian weapons spotted in the arsenals of Islamic extremist groups operating in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusrah, notorious for its grave human rights violations.
In February, Eliot Higgins of the Brown Moses blog, wrote a piece for the New York Times, describing the introduction of the Croatian weapons on the Syria battlefield.

His blog shows M79 Osa shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons, as well as the M60 recoilless guns on pictures and video stills from the war. Both types were developed in the former Yugoslavia and were previously unknown as having been transferred abroad. Also RBG-6 and RPG-22 grenade launchers have been spotted.

According to NYT reporters C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt Saudi Arabia had “financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters in Syria in a drive to break the bloody stalemate that has allowed President Bashar al-Assad to cling to power […]. The weapons began reaching rebels in December via shipments shuttled through Jordan”. According to officials multiple planeloads of weapons have left Croatia since December.

In another piece in March, Chivers and Schmitt reported that “American 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”.

The Croatian weapons case is remarkable in many respects.

First of all, it shows that controlling weapon flows into Syria is nearly impossible. Despite western [read: US, UK and French] assurances that they will only supply to the ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army (FSA], in practice weapons easily end up in other hands. When CIA-negotiated Croatian weapons show up so quickly in the hands of al-Nusrah and other radical islamist factions, or are being captured by Syrian government forces, any such assurance is meaningless rhetoric.

This week Croatia became the European Union’s 28th member state. As part of its accession process it has worked with EU officials to set up an arms control system in conformity with EU standards. For example, the Arms Control and Security Project (ACSP) was a joint initiative of UN’s Development Programme (UNDP) and the EU, “designed to assist the Republic of Croatia (RoC) in a variety of identified state and human security needs that assist the country in its transition to a safe and secure EU member state, acting as a force for regional and international security.”

Clearly, Croatia was aware of the EU embargo against Syria, which has been in place since May 2011, and knew it was supposed to abide by the sanctions.
In a reaction to the New York Times, Croatia has plainly denied selling weapons to either Saudi Arabia or Syrian rebels. “We did not supply arms,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Danijela Barisic.

Croatia apparently said something similar to European counterparts when asked about the spotted arms in Syria, according to Dutch Foreign minister Frans Timmermans. However, when Christian-democrat Pieter Omtzigt persisted during a debate last month, Timmermans promised to get more details from Zagreb about arms deals with Saudi Arabia, including about end-user certificates.

Which of course makes us very curious, especially as the EU always boasts of strong peer pressure among member states. Just a few years back arms control NGO Saferworld asserted that Zagreb “has been reluctant to embrace fully EU-equivalent systems of control.”

Maybe no wonder then that Zagreb has shown no appetite to explain how its weapons could surface in the bloody Syrian war.

[FS, 1 July 2013]