10 November 2017

The Messaging App Fueling Syria’s Insurgency

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In rebel-held Syria, access to the weapons you need to wage an insurgency are just a tap away thanks to an encrypted messaging app. The Islamic State may be in retreat, but other militants in Syria have been trading thousands of weapons in publicly accessible black markets hosted on Telegram, including dozens of U.S. military assault rifles and parts for the same kind of anti-tank missile systems distributed by the CIA to anti-Bashar al-Assad rebels. Foreign Policy conducted an exclusive investigation to determine the scale of these arms markets, and where the weapons that ended up on them originated.

The markets have hosted over 5,000 users and catered to buyers and sellers primarily based in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib, according to information posted by users. The province is home to a diverse array of rebel groups, including factions that used to receive advanced weaponry from the CIA, but the al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham represents far and away the strongest force there after ousting its rivals from power.

Some of the U.S.-made weapons available on these markets likely first entered Syria as part of an ill-fated Pentagon program to train and equip fighters in northern Syria to take on the Islamic State. The Barack Obama administration ended the effort in October 2015, after U.S.-trained commanders were kidnapped and shaken down for arms by al Qaeda soon after crossing from Turkey into Syria — but the American guns from the program continue to live on in illicit arms markets. The American arms, however, are just a small part of thousands of weapons being traded by Syrian militants on the online black markets hosted on the Telegram messaging app.

Provided with a list of serial numbers and accompanying photographs of Defense Department arms for sale in the markets, a spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve said that the coalition believes the weapons “may have been part of the now-terminated Syria Train and Equip program that supported Vetted Syrian Opposition forces.”

This photo: Foreign Policy was able to identify serial numbers for at least 28 different American weapons in Telegram markets. A spokesperson for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State operation said the coalition believes the arms “may have been part of the now-terminated Syria Train and Equip program” that provided weapons to Syrian rebel forces. Top photo: Syrian rebels in Telegram arms markets appear to have access to a wealth of U.S.-made firearms, including a range of M16 assault rifle variants, M4A1 carbines, and an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. (Foreign Policy screenshots)

The apparent diversion from the Syria Train and Equip Program represents another in a series of black marks for the much maligned 2015 effort. At the time the $500 million initiative was closed down, it had trained fewer than 150 fighters and failed to mount an effective opposition to the Islamic State.

The spread of weapons from the program into the black market is just one example of how the United States has struggled to ensure the security of arms transfers in support of America’s war against terrorist groups. In the chaos following the fall of Mosul in 2014, the Islamic State captured huge stockpiles of American-made firearms, armored Humvees, and tanks from fleeing Iraqi troops. In the rush to buttress Iraq against the terrorist group’s advance, the U.S. Defense Department lost track of over $1 billion worth of arms sent to Iraq and Kuwait. Iranian-backed Shiite militias and other militant groupsalso got their hands on some of the billions of dollars’ worth of arms Washington sent to partner forces in Iraq and Syria to help them fight the Islamic State.

The CIA’s program to arm and train anti-Assad rebels with TOW anti-tank missiles and other small arms has also suffered from diversion, after corrupt Jordanian intelligence officials skimmed arms from the program to sell on the black market.

The U.S.-led coalition’s partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led army that recently liberated the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, has so far fared better than previous efforts to train rebel groups in Syria. However, the potential for arms diversion from the SDF is a sensitive diplomatic issue: Turkey, which considers the SDF’s Kurdish fighters to be terrorists, worries that U.S. weapons meant to fight the Islamic State might eventually be turned on its own soldiers. In response to Turkish concerns, an Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman pledged that “Every single one of these weapons that will be provided to our partner forces will be accounted for and pointed at ISIS.”

The markets also offer a window on the scale and scope of weaponry and equipment now available to Syrian militants. The Telegram channels have offered everything from Cold War-vintage surface-to-air missiles to anti-tank weapons, armored vehicles, suicide belts, assault rifles from Russia and Serbia, drones, and Iranian thermal scopes, among other items.

Foreign Policy could not independently verify that sellers in the markets actually possessed the individual items advertised for sale. But the scale of the markets — encompassing thousands of users and posts with mostly unique imagery of weapons dating back at least two years — suggests that the channels facilitate at least some arms trafficking. Weapons often take circuitous routes from manufacturer to end user, passing through different owners through loss, theft, or sales. While FP was able to determine the make and model of some of the weapons offered in the channels, it could not trace every step in the items’ path into Syria.

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