Details of US arms shipment to Syrian rebels revealed

Jeremy Binnie & Neil Gibson London 08 April 2016

Documents released by the US government‘s Federal Business Opportunities (FBO) website have provided an indication of the types and numbers of East European weapons and ammunition the United States is providing to Syrian rebel groups as part of a programme that continues despite the widely respected ceasefire in that country.

The FBO has released two solicitations in recent months looking for shipping companies to transport explosive material from Eastern Europe to the Jordanian port of Aqaba on behalf of the US Navy's Military Sealift Command.

Released on 3 November 2015, the first solicitation sought a contractor to ship 81 containers of cargo that included explosive material from Constanta in Romania to Aqaba.

The solicitation was subsequently updated with a detailed packing list that showed the cargo had a total weight 994 tonnes, a little under half of which was to be unloaded at Agalar, a military pier near the Turkish town of Taşucu, with the other half unloaded at Aqaba.

The cargo listed in the document included AK-47 rifles, PKM machine guns, DShK heavy machine guns, RPG-7 rocket launchers, and 9K111M Faktoria anti-tank guided weapons (ATGWs). The Faktoria is an improved version of the 9K111 Fagot ATGW, the primary difference being that its missile has a tandem warhead for defeating explosive reactive armour (ERA) fitted to some tanks.

The rest of the cargo was made up of ammunition for these weapons, as well as for 14.5 mm heavy machine guns and 82 mm mortars. Many of the RPG-7 rockets were listed as tandem warhead PG-7VT rounds

images/9K111-or-9K111M.png

A rebel fighter prepares to fire an ATGW that could be either a 9K111 Fagot or a 9K111M Faktoria, the two being identical, externally.

While the packing list only recorded the weight of the different types of cargo, it is possible to extrapolate rough unit numbers. For example, the weights of missiles, tubes and packing containers listed in a Russian Faktoria manual obtained by IHS Jane’s shows the shipment included around 50 ATGW launchers and between 796 and 854 missiles, depending on which type of box was used.

images/packing-list.png

The contract was awarded to Transatlantic Lines on 19 November and one of the company’s vessels, the general cargo ship Geysir (IMO: 7710733). sailed from Constanta on 5 December.

IHS Maritime data shows Geysir's AIS transponder only sporadically transmitted the vessel’s location over the following 10 days. However, it is clear the vessel sailed around the north of Cyprus towards Agalar. then headed south to Egypt, transited the Suez Canal, and was heading north in the Gulf of Aqaba when it disappeared on 15 December. It reappeared in the Gulf of Suez the following day.

Released on the FBO website on 5 February, the second solicitation outlined a contract to carry explosive material from Burgas in Bulgaria to Aqaba. It did not include a packing list, but indicated the shipment was roughly twice the size of the earlier one. It said the cargo consisted of 117 containers with an average weight of 25,000 lb (11,340 kg), meaning a total weight of 2,007 tonnes; it said the net explosive weight of the cargo would be 162 tonnes.

The Schuyler Line Navigation Company was awarded the contract on 25 February and one of its vessels. SLNC Corsica (IMO: 9222352), left Burgas on 28 March.

While neither Constanta nor Agalar were mentioned in the solicitation. SLNC Corsica proceeded to mirror the journey made by Geysir by stopping at both before heading to the Suez Canal. where the solicitation stipulated it needed to take on an armed security team consisting of at least four personnel. Its AIS transponder stopped transmitting its location after transiting the canal on 4 April.

Although the solicitations made no reference to Syria as the final destination or the weapons. rebel groups that are fighting to overthrow President Bashir al-Assad are the most likely end-users for these shipments

The Turkish and Jordanian militaries do not use most of the Soviet-bloc weapons and ammunition listed in the cargo document, but Syrian rebels have been seen with all these types, with the possible exception or the Faktoria.

Produced in Bulgaria as well as Russia, the Faktoria would be an ideal weapon for state sponsors to supply to Syrian rebels as it looks identical to the Fagot. which is in service with the Syrian military, while its tandem warhead is better suited to knocking out the Syrian army T-72s that are protected by ERA.

Turkey and Jordan both participated in a US programme to train and equip Syrian groups to fight the Islamic State. These groups were mostly equipped with US infantry weapons, although one released a video in November 2015 showing it had 9K113 Konkurs ATGWs.

This train-and-equip programme was officially abandoned in 2015, but a covert programme appears to have continued. it is widely presumed that the CIA is at least vetting the groups that are receiving US-made BGM-71 TOW ATGWs from US regional allies, if not supplying them itself.