Syrian rebels, frustrated by the West’s reluctance to provide arms, have found a supplier in an unlikely source: Sudan, a country that has been under international arms embargoes and maintains close ties with a stalwart backer of the Syrian government, Iran.
In deals that have not been publicly acknowledged, Western officials and Syrian rebels say, Sudan’s government sold Sudanese- and Chinese-made arms to Qatar, which arranged delivery through Turkey to the rebels.
The shipments included antiaircraft missiles and newly manufactured small-arms cartridges, which were seen on the battlefield in Syria — all of which have helped the rebels combat the Syrian government’s better-armed forces and loyalist militias.
Emerging evidence that Sudan has fed the secretive arms pipeline to rebels adds to a growing body of knowledge about where the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is getting its military equipment, often paid for by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or other sympathetic donors.
While it is unclear how pivotal the weapons have been in the nearly three-year-old civil war, they have helped sustain the opposition against government forces emboldened by aid from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
Sudan’s involvement adds yet another complication to a civil war that has long defied a diplomatic resolution. The battle has evolved into a proxy fight for regional influence between global powers, regional players and religious sects. In Sudan’s case, it has a connection with the majority Sunni rebels, and a potentially lucrative financial stake in prosecuting the war.
But Sudan’s decision to provide arms to the rebels — bucking its own international supporters and helping to cement its reputation for fueling conflict — reflects a politically risky balancing act. Sudan maintains close economic and diplomatic ties to Iran and China.
Both nations have provided military and technical assistance to Sudan’s state-run arms industry and might see sales of its weapons by Sudan to help rebels in Syria as an unwanted outcome of their collaboration with Khartoum, or even as a betrayal.
Sudan has a history of providing weapons to armed groups while publicly denying its hand in such transfers. Its arms or ammunition has turned up in South Sudan, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Chad, Kenya, Guinea, Mali and Uganda, said Jonah Leff, a Sudan analyst for the Small Arms Survey, a research project. It has provided weapons to Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army; rebels in Libya; and the janjaweed, the pro-government militias that are accused of a campaign of atrocities in Darfur.
“Sudan has positioned itself to be a major global arms supplier whose wares have reached several conflict zones, including the Syrian rebels,” said one American official who is familiar with the shipments to Turkey.
Western analysts and officials said Sudan’s clandestine participation in arming rebels in Syria suggests inherent tensions in Mr. Bashir’s foreign policy, which broadly supports Sunni Islamist movements while maintaining a valued relationship with the Shia theocracy in Iran.
Other officials suggested that a simple motive was at work — money. Sudan is struggling with a severe economic crisis.
“Qatar has been paying a pretty penny for weapons, with few questions asked,” said one American official familiar with the transfers. “Once word gets out that other countries have opened their depots and have been well paid, that can be an incentive.”
Analysts suspect Sudan has sold several other classes of weapons to the rebels, including Chinese-made antimateriel sniper rifles and antitank missiles, all of which have made debuts in the war this year but whose immediate sources have been uncertain.
Two American officials said Ukrainian-flagged aircraft had delivered the shipments. Air traffic control data from an aviation official in the region shows that at least three Ukrainian aviation transport companies flew military-style cargo planes this year from Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, to a military and civilian airfield in western Turkey. In telephone interviews, officials at two firms denied carrying arms; the third firm did not answer calls on Monday.
Mr. Ahmad, the Sudanese presidential spokesman, suggested that if Sudan’s weapons were seen with Syria’s rebels, perhaps Libya had provided them.
Sudan, he said, has admitted sending arms during the 2011 war to oust Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Libya’s new leaders have publicly thanked Sudan. Libya has since been a busy supplier of the weapons to rebels in Syria.
However, that would not explain the Sudanese-made 7.62×39-millimeter ammunition documented by The New York Times this year in rebel possession near the Syrian city of Idlib.
The ammunition, according to its stamped markings, was made in Sudan in 2012 — after the war in Libya had ended. It was used by Soquor al-Sham, an Islamist group that recognizes the Western-supported Syrian National Coalition’s military command.
Sudan’s suggestion that any of its weapons in Syria had been provided by Libya also would not explain the presence of FN-6 antiaircraft missiles in Syrian rebel units. Neither the Qaddafi loyalists nor the rebels in Libya were known to possess those weapons in 2011, analysts who track missile proliferation said.
The movements of FN-6s have been at the center of one of the stranger arms-trafficking schemes in the civil war.
The weapons, which fire a heat-seeking missile from a shoulder launcher, gained nonproliferation specialists’ immediate attention when they showed up in rebel videos early this year. Syria’s military was not known to stock them, and their presence in northern Syria strongly suggested that they were being brought to rebels via black markets, and perhaps with the consent of the authorities in Turkey.
After the missiles were shown destroying Syrian military helicopters, the matter took an unusual turn when a state-controlled newspaper in China, apparently acting on a marketing impulse, lauded the missile’s performance. “The kills are proof that the FN-6 is reliable and user-friendly, because rebel fighters are generally not well trained in operating missile systems,” the newspaper, The Global Times, quoted a Chinese aviation analyst as saying.
The successful attacks on Syria’s helicopters by Chinese missiles brought “publicity” that “will raise the image of Chinese defense products on the international arms trade market,” the newspaper wrote.
The praise proved premature.
As the missiles were put to wider use, rebels began to complain, saying that more often than not they failed to fire or to lock on targets.
Detailed photos of one of the FN-6 missile tubes, provided by a Syrian with access to the weapons, showed that someone had taken steps to obscure its origin. Stenciled markings, the photos showed, had been covered with spray paint. Such markings typically include a missile’s serial number, lot number, manufacturer code and year of production.
Rebels said that before they were provided with the missiles, months ago, they had already been painted, either by the seller, shipper or middlemen, in a crude effort to make tracing the missiles more difficult.