The Islamic State’s takeover of Ramadi on Sunday highlights an uncomfortable truth about the group’s offensives across large parts of Iraq in the last year: the largesse of US arms exports in recent years to an unstable Iraqi government has helped provide IS with equipment, arms, and ammunition that, in turn, the group utilized to mount offensives against the very government those exports were intended to help defend.
IS captured more US-supplied Humvees, Abrams tanks, and rockets as the group took Ramadi. IS was reportedly even slowed by the spoils of war, as they allegedly slowed their advance to collect the abandoned and captured equipment.
The US government once more responded to IS’s advance by speeding up shipments of weapons to the Iraqi government, partly with the intent to destroy some of the equipment and arms previously sold or given by the US to the Iraqi government.
The capture of US arms by IS and the migration of US-supplied weapons from moderate Syrian rebels into the hands of al Qaeda-linked factions in that country are just two examples of how arms exports intended to achieve short-term goals can create long-term problems and fuel further conflict.
In February, VICE News visited Abu Dhabi to attend the United Arab Emirates’ bi-annual International Defense Exhibition and Conference, known in defense industry circles simply as IDEX. Begun in 1993, it is the largest such show in the Middle East, and it now includes more than 1000 exhibitors. As befitting the world’s leading arms exporter, the US had a dedicated pavilion at the show.
VICE News traveled to the show to speak with arms manufacturers about the increasing competition between Russia and the US to supply weapons the Middle East. After the US withdrawal in 2011, Iraq became Russia’s second largest client for arms sales. After US lawmakers briefly halted weapons shipments to Egypt last year due to concerns about human rights abuses by the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Russian government quickly expressed its readiness to take on Egypt as a client.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks global arms sales, Russia increased arms exports by 37 percent between 2010 and 2014 as its military industry underwent upgrades along with its military forces. In that same period, Middle Eastern countries increased their imports 71 percent compared to the previous 5-year period. Saudi Arabia is now the world’s top importer of weapons.
During that same period, the US comprised 31 percent of global arms exports, while Russia made up 27 percent.
American manufacturers, with their historical dominance of exports worldwide, didn’t seem bothered by Russia’s push. Colt has been manufacturing the US military’s standard issue rifles for decades. The most recent incarnation is the M4 carbine.
“It has the clout of being used in the US military since the 1960s,” said Thomas Sullivan, an international salesman for Colt. “When you look around the world today and you see the more prominent, the more established militaries worldwide carry the M4 carbine…When you see the AK [Kalashnikov rifles], there’s that stigma attached to it of irregular forces, black market.”
Sometimes manufacturers compete for the same clients. At other times, political considerations create advantages.
“There are a lot of markets the State Department does not allow Colt to be sold into,” Sullivan said. “There are certain regions Russian exporters can have access to that American manufacturers cannot.”
Those markets include Iran, Syria and Libya. But Russia has an uphill battle if it wants to beat the US in the arms trade. The US government has been positioning American companies to dominate the market for years.
“Foreign military sales were very much on everyone’s mind, particularly the years that I was there, 2009 and 2010,” said Peter Van Buren, a former State Department official whose final assignment was working to help prop up the Iraqi government. “We saw the end of the war coming, and one of the things the United States was doing to position itself for the end of the war was to set up the pipeline of arms.”
Van Buren cited the example of a base he worked on where US forces trained Iraqi soldiers to operate Abrams tanks. The base was already being prepared to take delivery on further tanks in the coming years.
After the US withdrawal, human rights abuses by then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a divisive figure the US helped to ascend to power, caused the U.S. government to block the sale of some weapons to Iraq, including Apache attack helicopters. In the meantime, Russia provided fighter jets, helicopters and ground-to-ground missile systems.
The most significant result of Russia’s increased engagement in the Middle East might be its effect on US considerations about the long-term implications of supplying clients who have committed human rights abuses or demonstrated difficulty retaining control of the weapons they receive from the US. Despite assurances that the end-use of such weapons is vouchsafed by the State Department in the US and Russia’s Rosoboronexport, the Moscow’s state company for weapons exports, weapons sent to Iraq are clearly ending up in the hands of Iran-allied militia forces who fight alongside what remains of the Iraqi army.
In March, VICE News saw these militia forces deployed on frontlines around the country. At the time, US government spokespeople downplayed the role of the militias and their use of US-supplied weapons.
With the fall of Ramadi, the militias’ presence appears to have become an acknowledged fact, demonstrating the difficulty of controlling where weapons might eventually end up after their delivery to the Iraqi government. Irregular Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria have captured US vehicles and weapons from IS, adding to the number of non-state groups in possession of US-supplied materiel. The US is sending other weapons to Kurdish militia in northern Iraq via Baghdad, and plans to arm tribes in western Iraq could further distribute weapons to a variety of groups that may potentially battle one another if and when IS is defeated. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is openly suspicious of both Kurdish and Sunni intentions, and has insisted the US allow it to distribute all weapons sent to Iraq.
At Iraq’s own defense expo in March, there was even less of a sense of competition. The Iraqi government is in need of weapons and will take them from wherever it can.
d whether he was disappointed to see the Iraqi government take delivery of Russian fighter jets since Lockheed’s planned delivery of F-16s had been stalled by, among other things, an IS threat to the base north of Baghdad where they were supposed to be delivered.
“It’s a big country and we require a lot of equipment, and we need some of this equipment very soon,” Qaragholi said. “So we can fight the terrorists that we have in Iraq.”