For Syria’s Antigovernment Fighters, A Saudi Purchase of Croatian Arms.

For weeks we had been watching the spread through the civil war in Syria of weapons made in the former Yugoslavia, and been admiring the work of Eliot Higgins (a.ka. Brown Moses) as he tried mapping their appearances in the videos of varied and far-flung armed groups. At one point, two weeks back, the NYT had assigned and accepted an At War blog post from Eliot and considered putting it on the NYT site.

Then we held up. By that time we were almost certain we knew who was buying and shipping in the weapons. We decided to try to show not just the terminal end of the arms pipeline, as others were working on that, and Eliot had already done the heavy lifting there. We decided to bear down on the other side — from where the weapons were coming, and to develop a richer sense of who was paying for and moving them. That took time. The results are in today’s NYT — a sketch of a more activist approach to helping the rebels, as Sunni Arab states funnel old Balkan stockpile into Syria, under Washington’s (at a minimum) watchful eye.  A backgrounder by Eliot as he describes this latest bout of arm-spotting (and the methodology and meaning in the appearance of unusual arms) is here.

Thank you, Eliot, for your patience, and your fine eye, and for creating an opportunity for merging new and old forms of reporting into a fresh look at recent events in what is becoming a more active regional war. 

One note:  An interesting question to pursue in the months and years ahead will be the future whereabouts and uses of the Croatian-sourced arms. Many arming programs start with good intentions, and later look naive, or even foolish. Why? Because weapons tend to move liquidly with time. These newly arrived weapons in Syria may well have been intended for nationalist and secular fighters. The briefings in Washington may have strongly emphasized that point. If history is a guide — and it is — then with time you can expect them to spread to others’ hands. For future researchers, three words: follow the guns.


Screen grabs from rebel videos of the type of weapon that gave the deal away.


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