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

 

Share

 

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.

i@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women are working in some of the lowest-paid sectors such as cleaning, catering and caring  

Women's wages have gone backwards. Labour would give women the pay they deserve

Gloria de Piero
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?