The New York Times newspaper revealed that With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment. A report published on Monday, the newspaper said that the airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, according to air traffic data.
It has increased to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara and at other Turkish and Jordanian airports. Even though the Obama administration has publicly refused to give more than “nonlethal” aid to the rebels, the involvement of the C.I.A. in the arms shipments has shown that the United States is more willing to help its Arab allies support the lethal side of the crisis in Syria.
From secret locations, the American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive, according to American officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iraq on Sunday to do more to halt Iranian flights through its airspace to Syria; he did so even as the most recent military cargo flight from Qatar for the rebels landed at Esenboga early Sunday night.
Most of the cargo flights have started in November, after the presidential election in the United States and as the Turkish and Arab governments grew more frustrated by the rebels’ inability to make any progress. The Turkish government has had oversight over much of the weapon distributions , down to affixing transponders to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey so it might monitor shipments as they move by land into Syria, officials said. The scale of shipments was very large, according to officials familiar with the pipeline and to an arms-trafficking investigator who assembled data on the cargo planes involved.
“A conservative estimate payload of these flights would be 3,500 tons of military equipment,” said Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, who monitors illicit arms transfers.
The airlift to Syrian rebels began slowly. On Jan. 3, 2012, a pair of Qatar Emiri Air Force C-130 transport aircraft touched down in Istanbul, according to air traffic data.
The newspaper noted that on a string of nights from April 26 through May 4, a Qatari Air Force C-17 — a huge American-made cargo plane — made six landings in Turkey, at Esenboga Airport. By Aug. 8, the Qataris had made 14 more cargo flights. All came from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, a hub for American military logistics in the Middle East.
A former American official said David H. Petraeus, former C.I.A. director , had been instrumental in helping to get this aviation network moving and had prodded various countries to work together on it. Soon, other countries joined the airlift: In November, three Royal Jordanian Air Force C-130s landed in Esenboga, what would become a stepped-up Jordanian and Saudi role in transporting weapons to the rebels
The report also stated that within three weeks, two other Jordanian cargo planes began making a round-trip run between Amman(capital of Jordan) and Zagreb (capital of Croatia),where, officials from several countries said, the aircraft were picking up a large Saudi purchase of infantry arms from a Croatian-controlled stockpile.