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 battle has evolved into a proxy fight for regional influence between global powers, regional players and religious sects. . . .
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. . . .
[O]fficials 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. . . .
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. . . .
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, 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. . . .
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. One rebel commander, Abu Bashar, who coordinates fighting in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces, called the missiles, which he said had gone to Turkey from Sudan and had been provided to rebels by a Qatari intelligence officer, a disappointment.
“Most of the FN-6s that we got didn’t work,” he said. He said two of them had exploded as they were fired, killing two rebels and wounding four others.