Private Group Sought to Arm Syrian Rebels
A group led by a former Pentagon official devised a plan to supply moderate Syrian rebels with weapons sourced in Eastern Europe and financed by a wealthy Saudi, and it ran into flak from the CIA
18 May 2014
By Dion Nissenbaum
WASHINGTON—An urgent plea for arms by Syrian rebels last summer posed a quandary for the Obama administration.
The rebels were facing setback after setback on the battlefield. The administration backed their goal of unseating the Syrian government, but worried about U.S.-supplied arms making their way to fighters linked to al Qaeda. In the end, the U.S. approved a modest arms-supply effort that was slow to gain traction.
For one group of Americans, that wasn't enough. On their own, the Americans offered to provide 70,000 Russian-made assault rifles and 21 million rounds of ammunition to the Free Syrian Army, a major infusion they said could be a game changer. With a tentative nod from the rebels, the group set about arranging a weapons shipment from Eastern Europe, to be paid for by a Saudi prince.
The weapons never made it to Syria. As the private group worked to complete its deal, a surprise showdown in Jordan forced it to put its plan on hold.
The story of the aborted weapons-supply effort, confirmed by people directly involved, provides a peek inside the normally hidden world of private arms contracting. This one involves an unusual protagonist: a former high-ranking official at the U.S. Defense Department. And waiting in the wings was the founder of the controversial security firm Blackwater Worldwide.
Mr. Schmitz left the Pentagon job in 2005 to become general counsel at Blackwater's parent company, staying until 2008.
Last summer, as his team continued laying the groundwork to arm Syrian rebels, a Saudi member of the team was approached by a CIA representative in Jordan, who told him to put the brakes on the plan, according to two people involved in the effort.
Mr. Schmitz said he was "shocked and disappointed" that the U.S. government stepped in to quash the deal.
The CIA declined to comment. The National Security Council defended the administration's Syria policy. "The United States is committed to building the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition," said an NSC spokeswoman, Bernadette Meehan. "As we have consistently said, we are not going to detail every single type of our assistance."
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