Letter from the Defence Correspondent: American weapons are giving Islamist fighters the edge against the Kurds



RAF planes are ferrying arms and ammunition from eastern Europe to Iraq, David Cameron revealed last week, almost in an aside as he was laying out the need to expand Britain’s role in the war. There were no further details offered and none have come despite repeated requests.

What we have been told is that the supplies were for the Peshmarga whose arsenal is mainly of elderly Warsaw Pact vintage: Kurdish leaders have been volubly complaining that these have been no match for the modern American weaponry the Islamist extremists picked up in huge numbers as the US trained Iraqi forces ran away.

When Isis had initially charged into Iraq from their Syrian strongholds, seizing huge swathes of territory, they did not, of course, have the Humvees and the Abrams tanks. What they used, to such great effect, were assorted mortars, rocket propelled grenade launchers, heavy machine-guns, anti-tank weapons : significant proportion of the hardware was of Warsaw Pact origin.

These weapons had been supplied by the West and its allies, the Saudis, in late 2012 and early last year ago to the rebels in Syria fighting the Assad regime. No less than 3,000 tonnes of the stuff were reportedly shifted in 75 planeloads. They came from the same sources which are now being used by the British government to supply the Peshmerga forces desperately trying to combat one of the beneficiaries, Isis, of the previous airlift.

There are two, fairly obvious, lessons from this. A relatively poorly armed force which is dedicated and determined will defeat a much better armed but un-motivated and disorganised one, in this case those of the corrupt and sectarian Maliki government.  The second point is that it is almost impossible to keep track of arms and ammunition poured into a complex conflict unless one has means of keeping stringent checks on them and control of their subsequent movement. 

In the case of the east European arms for the rebels, it was not even clear if the West knew who they were destined for. The consignments came from Croatia, which has vast stockpiles of kit, a lot of it from the Yugoslav civil war. The Croatian government denied this at the time, but ample proof has emerged of the country’s role in the trade. The arms were flown from Zagreb by Ilyushin  jets of a Jordanian air cargo company, mainly into Jordan, but also into Turkey, before being moved to Syria. The British government has acknowledged that it is now helping to transport ammunition from Jordan to the Peshmerga.

Western officials stated at the time of the previous shipments that were for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) the umbrella group, a dysfunctional one at the time, of the more moderate fighters against the regime amid great clamour in western Europe and the US that they should be armed.

CIA and MI6 officials helped arranged the purchase and transport. But the bulk of the money had come from Saudi Arabia which was nurturing the more extreme jihadist groups, including Isis in the early stages of its formation. This reached a feverish pitch when Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the then head of Saudi intelligence, was tasked by the King to turn the rebels into a more effective fighting force and ensure President Assad’s removal.

This was not entirely to do with spreading the Wahaabi creed, although that was a strong motivation, but also an issue in regional rivalry with Qatar and Turkey. They all had vested interests, the Turks, for example, had insisted that the weapons given to the rebels should not be too modern, in case they fell into the hands of the Kurdish PKK who they had been fighting for decades.

None of this was a great secret, frustrated Western officials were happy to discuss the problems with those of us who had a little knowledge, or indeed showed any interest, in what was going on in rebel held Syria. The actions of the Saudis and Qataris often undermined, they complained, their attempts to help form a pluralist opposition.

In Syria I remember rebel commanders, more moderate ones, speaking excitedly about the consignments of eastern European arms. One, in the town of Al-Baab displaying a Yugoslav anti-tank weapon, it was, he proudly pointed out, an M79 Osa.

Six months later when I was back in Syria, at the same time Barack Obama was supposed to be bombing the Assad regime, the  commander and his colleagues in al-Baab were talking about the march of Isis, how they were taking over town after town from other rebel groups, seizing arms from other khatibas (battalions), and also receiving increasing supplies  from the Gulf Arabs.

Al-Baab fell a week later to Isis, the local battalion fought as hard as they had done against the regime forces, but they were outnumbered and lost; some of them, men I had come to regard as friends, died. As Isis swept  into swept into Iraq, blogging sites focusing on such matters, showed the type of weaponry they were using, including, I noticed, Osa anti-tank weapons.