Author: William Harris, Goucher College
The Elmech EM-992 7.62 x 51 mm Sniper Rifle is not native to Syria. Nevertheless, the Croatian-made weapon turned up in the hands of Islamic State (IS) fighters in the Syrian city of Avdoké in July of 2014. It is not especially unusual for the IS to be using foreign-made weapons. Their arsenal is rather international, including weapons from Russia and China. Even US-made weapons seized from the Iraqi army have found their way into the hands of IS fighters. Nevertheless, Croatia’s name seems a bit unusual in this list of superpowers. Croatia has had an immense impact on the illegal arms market for years, which has created the pathways for its weapons to end up with the IS.
Croatia’s militaristic history and growth of organized crime has made it a prime location for illegal weapons traffic. The repression of the communist regime in Yugoslavia encouraged the growth of a vibrant black market. The criminal syndicates that ran these markets were not simply tolerated; corrupt government officials, who frequently used their services, supported them. The collapse of Yugoslavia and the subsequent conflict between the former Yugoslav states cultivated a heavy demand for weapons throughout the region. This demand grew even larger after the 1991 UN Security Council arms embargo, which prevented the legitimate flow of arms to the region. The states, especially Croatia, turned to international weapons smuggling to supply their armies. After the war ended, Croatia was left with a large arms surplus and an extensive network in the illegal arms trade. The criminal syndicates that had profited from the conflict began selling their surplus outside the country.
Croatia’s geography made smuggling especially easy. The combination of its porous and poorly-guarded border with Bosnia-Hertzogevina and its long coastline meant smugglers had many ways to move through the country undetected. Croatia soon became a major supplier of both the Irish Republican Army and the Basque separatist movement in Spain, as well as organized crime in the UK and other European countries. Its expertise in international arms smuggling make it an attractive candidate to some unlikely clients from the Middle East.
The rise of rebel armies in Syria provided an opportunity for regional players to exert their influence. For many Sunni Arab states, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Syrian uprisings gave unprecedented hope that the Shia-dominated Assad regime could be overthrown. Despite initial success, the rebels faced serious challenges. The Assad regime received tremendous support from their Russian and Iranian allies. An international arms embargo against Iran has not stopped the Iranians from supplying the Assad regime with weapons. It became clear that, in light of such support, that the rebels would need their own independent supply of weapons to continue the fight.
In early 2012 Qatar began flying arms shipments through Turkey to support the rebels; Saudi Arabia followed suit later that year. The states wanted to aid the rebels, but wanted to avoid public declarations of support. Croatian arms smugglers provided the perfect solution. Their under-the-counter operations allowed for a degree of plausible deniability if the shipments were intercepted. While Qatar and Saudi Arabia used numerous different sources to procure their weapons, Croatia became one of the most important connections.
The Sunni states were not the only ones interested in toppling Assad. The CIA was involved early on with the arms shipments, providing logistical support and vetting rebel groups. Although at that time the US had not officially declared it would send lethal aid to the Syrian rebels, the CIA’s covert support allowed Qatar and Saudi Arabia to do so instead. The CIA hoped that their involvement in the smuggling process would prevent the arms from falling into the hands of the more extreme rebel groups and causing problems in the future. The CIA’s caution was well warranted; unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
The chaos of the Syrian conflict and the general disorder of the rebel forces has allowed some weapons to slip through the cracks. The US has thrown its support behind the more moderate elements of the Syrian resistance, most notably the Free Syrian Army. However, even if the weapons arrived at their intended targets, there was a considerable amount of interaction and exchange between different rebel groups. The rebels did not see the distinction between “moderate” and “extremist” groups as important when they were fighting for their survival. Over time, weapons drifted between different groups and got further and further away from their original owners.
In early 2014, Syrian blogger and journalist Brown Moses discovered the use of Croatian weapons by the Islamic State against Iraqi government forces, including an M79 Osa Anti-Tank Rocket Launcher and a RBG-6 Grenade Launcher. Croatian weaponry has no history in Syria or Iraq. The weapons most likely originated from the Saudi Arabian backed and CIA supported arms shipment from the previous year. These were illegally obtained Croatian weapons, flown through Turkey, distributed in Syria, and fired in Iraq. When dealing with supply chains of this size, complexity, and unpredictability, it should come as no surprise that weapons don’t always end up where you want them.