A soldier prepares an AT-4 rocket for launch. Photo: AFP/Simon Lim

Lax US arms controls and back doors to arms regulations are inadvertently fuelling a campaign of misinformation in Turkey that could drive further incursions in northern Syria as the campaign in Afrin draws to a close.

Since January, when Turkish forces invaded the Kurdish-ruled enclave around Afrin, Syria, Turkish newspapers and television shows have used the proliferation of US-made AT-4 anti-tank missiles to the Kurdish militants behind the long-running insurgency in Turkey’s south-east as a justification for the Afrin incursion.

An Asia Times investigation shows that in shipping these US-made weapons to the Middle East that ended up in the hands of insurgents from the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, American officials evaded globally standard arms controls designed to stop such arms proliferation. The Turkish Prime Minister’s office used such claims to justify the Afrin incursion on Twitter, sparking fears that lax US arms controls could inadvertently fuel further violence in Syria, as President Erdogan promised last week to continue Turkey’s incursions into Syria until the entire border region was clear of Kurdish militants.

Outcry over smuggled arms

Since mid-2016, the Turkish authorities have captured eight AT-4 rockets in Turkey’s southern provinces in six operations targeting PKK militants. Single-use anti-armor rockets, the AT-4 is capable of destroying a Cold War-era tank or blowing apart a small building and they are widely used by US forces. The seizures captured national attention as, while such raids routinely turn up Soviet-era light arms and explosives, the appearance of modern anti-tank weapons still used by Western militaries showed a frightening evolution of the PKK’s arsenal. Almost daily, Turkish newspapers, which are now all owned by state-aligned business groups, published articles slamming US support to Syria’s Kurds and often mentioning past supplies of AT-4 missiles. The front page of the right-wing Yeni Safak newspaper in early February screamed about Kurdish militants in Afrin, “They fired American missiles.” 

This media alarm is tied to US supplies of weapons to Kurds in Syria over the past few years. Since last May, the US has been arming Kurdish militants in northern Syria as part of the US-led campaign against Islamic State. Turkey considers the YPG militia that received US support to be an extension of the PKK, ratcheting up tensions between Ankara and Washington. Turkey’s political leaders have railed against US assistance to Turkey’s terrorist enemies and in February President Erdogan threatened an “Ottoman slap” to US forces that stood in the way of Turkish operations against Kurdish militants. In a now-deleted tweet, the Turkish Prime Minister’s officer listed “halting US support for the terror organization” as one of the reasons for the Afrin campaign.

The face of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a billboard in Ankara. Photo: AFP/Adem Altan

Back to the source

Only two countries manufactured the rockets, Sweden, the original designer, and the US, where from 1982 the AT-4 was manufactured under Swedish license by Alliant Techsystems Inc.

Typically, such production contracts are governed by end-user agreements, a global standard in the international arms industry aimed at halting the proliferation of weapons to unauthorized third-party recipients. The licensed manufacturer (or buyer) agrees to ask the original producer’s permission before giving the arms to a third party.

The Asia Times supplied the Inspectorate for Strategic Products, the Swedish arms export authority that regulates all transfer of arms produced under Swedish licenses to third-party countries, with photos from the Turkish Armed Forces showing the eight missiles seized since 2015. ISP Director General Christer Ahlstrom confirmed that all were produced in the US, noting that the English markings and lack of a grab handle were unique to the US-made weapons.

Turkish forces seized all of the rockets along the Iraqi border in the Turkish provinces of Hakkari and Sirnak, mountainous territory that has been the epicenter of the PKK’s insurgency and a key smuggling route into Kurdish Iraq, pointing to Iraq as the source of the weapons.

More damningly, the lot number of the AT-4 missile recovered by the Turks on May 26, 2016, matches that of two AT-4 missiles documented by Conflict Armament Research, an arms research body, in Iraq in 2016-17.

“It is likely that the weapons were procured by the United States to Iraqi security forces before being captured by Islamic State forces. The sighting of such weapons bearing identical lot number to an AT-4 recovered from PKK forces in Turkey makes it likely the items shared part of their supply chain,” said, Damien Spleeters, Head of Regional Operations for CAR, who photographed the missiles, two of four captured by Iraqi government forces from Islamic State fighters.

In 2015, The US made a widely reported transfer of 2,000 AT-4 rockets to the Iraqi government to combat the growing threat of armored car bombs that Islamic State militants were using with great effect in Iraq and Syria. The Kurdish Peshmerga military forces in Iraq also received 1,000 similar rockets in the past three years. Easy to use, single-use, and cheap, the rockets were an ideal solution to this lethal IS tactic.

A generational arms loophole

According to Christer, when the Swedish authorities saw reports of AT-4s in Iraqi hands they asked the US government for an explanation. The US reply was that the 1982 contract that the weapons were produced under predates end-user agreements.

 While all the export of AT-4s purchased now from Sweden would be restricted by stringent end-user contracts, these agreements only started to become commonplace in the mid-1980s. AT-4s produced under this first American license can be shipped without restriction, allowing the US to arms its partners regardless of their intended use or the prospect of them ending up in undesirable hands.

The appearance of American-made rockets in the hands of designated terror groups also poses questions for US controls post-delivery. While IS looted the missiles from Iraqi army positions they overran in 2014, how the PKK obtained the AT-4s is still unclear. Yet whether sourced directly from the Iraqi military or from Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, this proliferation clearly points to US weapons deliveries going awry, with controls failing to ensure arms recipients have not sold, gifted or lost weapons to third parties.

Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesperson for the US operations in Syria and Iraq against IS, said that prior vetting was a requirement to the provisions of training and equipment to any group, which had to have, “no association with terrorist groups or state supporters of terrorism.” He added that “A variety of weapons, manufactured in several countries, have been found throughout the region, to include with Daesh. This equipment was not “given” to these groups by the Coalition.”

Asked how US weapons ended up in PKK hands, Dillon said, “We cannot speculate on equipment that may be lost on the battlefield.”

“The US generally has some of the strongest end-user agreements compared to other countries,” said Colby Goodman, director of the Security Assistance Monitor, a research program tracking US defense assistance globally. “Unlike other countries, the US will go and inspect,” he said, adding, however, that despite this US Special Forces officers had told him that in Afghanistan demands for weapons for Afghan forces were routinely swollen to account for expected losses to the black market.

This would not be the first time US arms have ended up in the wrong hands. Conflict Armament Research’s most recent report extensively detailed how tons of US weapons and ammunition supplied to the Iraqi armed forces were lost to IS fighters since 2014. This year, controversy rocked the US Department of Defense when pictures showed US-made Abrams battle tanks being used by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, prompting the US to demand their return. In 2017 declassified Department of Defense audits revealed US forces had lost track of more than $1 billion of arms and equipment in Iraq and Kuwait.

An Iraqi soldier stands atop an Abrams-M1A1 tank during a training session with US troops on the southern outskirts of Baghdad on March 15, 2010. Photo: AFP

There is little evidence showing the smuggling to Turkey of weapons the US supplied to the YPG in Afrin, and representatives of US forces in Syria denied claims to the Asia Times. Despite this, with victory in Afrin Turkish enthusiasm for further intervention is undimmed, and the Kurds’ growing military capability is still considered just cause for military action.

President Erdogan harangued Washington over this issue on March 20. “We wanted weapons from you in return for money. You did not give it us, but you gave these weapons and ammunition to terror organizations for free,” he said, adding, “All that ammunition is being seized by us gradually.”

Top US political and military leaders have promised stringent controls on weapons handed to Kurdish fighters in Syria, and even to collect back distributed arms. However, given the American inability to secure and monitor the arms it doled out in Iraq, Turkish fears of the proliferation of AT-4s are not unfounded. Tragically, this US failure provides powerful fuel to the rumor mill behind the Turkish press and, in doing so, fans the flames of future violence in Syria.

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