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The $2 billion U.S. program to arm Syrian rebels has some big problems

A U.S. program to arm Syrian rebels against ISIS costs $2.2 billion in purchased or contracted weapons. (George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)

The Pentagon program equipping Syrian rebel groups to fight against ISIS is costing more than $2 billion dollars, often lacks specific documentation of where weapons are going, and has resulted in the use of old, lower quality arms from suppliers with ties to organized crime in Eastern Europe, according to a report released Tuesday.

What's this program about?

In 2014, the Pentagon started a program to train and equip moderate rebels in Syria. That program failed in less than a year, so the Department of Defense decided to start providing cheaper, Soviet-era weapons to rebel groups already on the ground.

And it costs how much, again?

$2.2 billion. The report states that the Obama administration spent $700 million from 2015 through May 2017, and more than $900 million has been contracted through 2022. The Trump administration has budgeted or requested more than $600 million.

What are the problems with the program?

  • Documentation. Weapons buyers are supposed to provide an end user certificate to get an arms export license. The Pentagon is listing the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as the end user, even though they're going to Syria, using this statement as the justification: “The material will be used for defense purposes in direct use by US government, transferred by means of grants as military education or training program or security assistance.” Arms experts and researchers say that the end user system relies on clarity, and this U.S. practice undermines the arms control system and creates risk for illegal trafficking issues.
  • Shady suppliers. This is a big program, bigger than many suppliers were prepared to handle. So the DoD has started getting some weapons from suppliers in Eastern Europe and former Soviet states that have ties to organized crime, and has also lowered standards on acceptable materials. This is a problem because old weapons that haven't been stored properly can be dangerous to the users.
  • Effectiveness and morality. The question must be asked about whether this program is an effective use of American money, and whether the arming of these (sometimes questionable) rebel groups is the best way to combat ISIS. One such group, the Kurdish People's Protection Unit (YPG) has been accused of war crimes by Amnesty International.
  • Long-term repercussions. In the event that ISIS is defeated in Syria, a new problem will arise: What will happen to all these weapons? Who will have them, and what will they be used for? Worse, if ISIS somehow defeats the rebel groups, these weapons will fall into terrorist hands. The Middle East is an unstable region, so there are a lot of ways having billions of dollars of weapons funneled there can go wrong.

The Pentagon has not yet responded to requests for comment by Foreign Policy, but a Pentagon spokesman told the authors of the report that the end user documentation is accurate, and that even though it lists the U.S. as the end user, the provision of transfer by grant for "security assistance" covers the exporting of the weapons to foreign parties.

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