The rebels were facing setback after setback on the battlefield. The administration backed their goal of unseating the Syrian government, but worried about U.S.-supplied arms making their way to fighters linked to al Qaeda. In the end, the U.S. approved a modest arms-supply effort that was slow to gain traction.
For one group of Americans, that wasn’t enough. On their own, the Americans offered to provide 70,000 Russian-made assault rifles and 21 million rounds of ammunition to the Free Syrian Army, a major infusion they said could be a game changer. With a tentative nod from the rebels, the group set about arranging a weapons shipment from Eastern Europe, to be paid for by a Saudi prince.
The weapons never made it to Syria. As the private group worked to complete its deal, a surprise showdown in Jordan forced it to put its plan on hold.
The story of the aborted weapons-supply effort, confirmed by people directly involved, provides a peek inside the normally hidden world of private arms contracting. This one involves an unusual protagonist: a former high-ranking official at the U.S. Defense Department. And waiting in the wings was the founder of the controversial security firm Blackwater Worldwide.
The idea for the arms deal evolved early last summer at a politically charged time. The Free Syrian Army, under siege both by Syrian government forces and by more-radical rebels with a jihadist agenda, made an urgent plea in Washington for heavy-duty military support. It wanted antitank missiles, shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons and a trove of ammunition to counter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
When the U.S. agreed only to a very limited arms initiative, the private group approached the rebels with its own proposal. Making the pitch was Joseph E. Schmitz, who from 2002 to 2005 served as Pentagon inspector general and wanted to help the moderate Syrian rebels.
“These guys are going to get killed. They can’t even defend themselves,” Mr. Schmitz said in an interview earlier this spring. The Syrian conflict has claimed about 140,000 lives and created a vast refugee crisis.
“I’m just trying to be helpful to some people that our government supports,” Mr. Schmitz said.
He told the Free Syrian Army’s leader at the time, Gen. Salim Idris, that his group had immediate access to a large supply of assault rifles in Ukraine and tons of ammunition in another Eastern European country.
To Gen. Idris, it sounded almost too good to be true. If the private group could get the shipments approved, he told Mr. Schmitz, the Free Syrian Army would welcome the weaponry.
“That was a very exciting plan,” Gen. Idris said by telephone from Syria in March. “We are in most need of weapons. And if we can arrange it officially under the law, we are most interested.”
His weapons, Mr. Schmitz said, could enable the moderate rebels to “defend themselves against genocide. That was the worry: The threats were from both these al Qaeda guys coming into Syria and from President Assad.”
He added: “I really felt for Gen. Idris. He seemed like a stable, moderate freedom fighter.”
Mr. Schmitz’s group crafted legal international documents, known as end-user certificates, to be signed by countries willing to take part in the deal. “The ball was on the tee,” said one person in his group.
Private arms shipments such as this aren’t out of the question. About 1,800 people are registered with the State Department as arms brokers. But before they can secure such deals, they need U.S. government approval.
Mr. Schmitz said his group included two U.S-registered arms brokers and had every intention of going through proper channels to get State Department approval.
Before approaching the Syrian rebels last summer, Mr. Schmitz said, he called the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and discussed his arms-supply idea. According to the State Department, the person Mr. Schmitz said he spoke to was a low-level assistant who doesn’t recall the conversation.
Though arms brokers must seek the department’s approval before negotiating deals, “there’s no clear guidance on when activity becomes brokerage activity,” Mr. Schmitz said. “Just because you have an idea and talk to someone about an idea doesn’t make it brokering.” He said the talks never matured to the point that the group needed State Department approval.
Richard F. Grimmett, a Congressional Research Service retiree who spent decades analyzing the arms trade for lawmakers, was critical of the plan when it was described to him.
“The whole reason the U.S. has regulatory regimes as it does is to make sure that someone can’t go off on their own initiative and engage in these kinds of activities without review and approval of the government,” Mr. Grimmett said. “If you act without clearing your action with the government, you risk potentially serious consequences,” including fines and prison time.
“What you’re dealing with here is the shadowy world of arms brokering and arms trafficking,” Mr. Grimmett said.
Mr. Schmitz said the arms were to be paid for by a member of the Saudi royal family, whom he declined to name.
The Saudi embassy in Washington said it couldn’t comment without knowing the name of the prince said to be involved. Saudi Arabia has tried to prevent people from stepping into the Syrian conflict to arm competing forces, said Nail Al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the embassy in Washington.
“The Saudis are concerned that the war may turn into a private war where private individuals are arming their own groups and, the next thing you know, it looks like Lebanon” during that country’s civil war, Mr. Al-Jubeir said. “We didn’t want that to happen in Syria.”
As the talks evolved last summer, Mr. Schmitz told members of the Syrian opposition that another figure might be willing to help: Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and a onetime Central Intelligence Agency asset.
Blackwater became a polarizing U.S. contractor during the Iraq war because of its aggressive efforts to protect U.S. diplomats in that country. After Blackwater guards were involved in a 2007 shootout in a Baghdad square that left at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead, Iraq barred Blackwater, and U.S. prosecutors charged some of the company’s guards with manslaughter. The guards said they had come under attack.
After years of legal maneuvering, three guards are expected to go to trial for manslaughter in Washington next month. Another was charged with murder earlier this month.All have pleaded not guilty, a lawyer for one of them said.
Mr. Prince sold Blackwater several years ago, and the company changed its name after he left. He then got involved in a variety of ventures including an effort to set up a rapid-response team for United Arab Emirates, which was shut down after the project became publicly known.
In January, Mr. Prince released his memoir and accused the U.S. government of making Blackwater a scapegoat for its policy failures in Iraq. Mr. Prince has defended the Blackwater guards involved in the shooting, saying they were doing what was required to try to get an American safely out of harm’s way.
In an interview, Mr. Prince said he was willing to help in Syria, but only if the plan went further by training the rebels and directly leading them into battle.
Simply pumping in arms, he said, was a “dumb idea.” Mr. Prince said Arab countries that have taken the lead in arming Syrian rebels have mismanaged the effort by financing weapons without providing proper oversight.
“No one can phone this one in,” he said. “It’s Irregular Warfare 101. You must be willing to put boots on the ground—uniformed or hired professional.”
It is a role he is still willing to play, Mr. Prince said.
“I would be happy to go and build and organize a force to defend their freedom, because there are a lot of Sunnis and Shias and Baha’is and Alawites and Christians that are just getting screwed, and enough is enough,” he said.
Given Blackwater’s history, the mention of Mr. Prince’s potential role added to concerns by some in the Syrian rebel camp about Mr. Schmitz’s plan.
Some members of the Syrian opposition were skeptical of the Schmitz group’s motives and concerned about potential blowback from involvement with any arms deal that could be linked to Blackwater.
During Mr. Schmitz’s years as Pentagon inspector general during the Bush administration, he oversaw investigations of defense contractors involved in the war in Iraq. At one point, lawmakers led by Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) launched a probe of whether Mr. Schmitz had blocked two criminal investigations. Mr. Schmitz said these were “fallacious, false allegations.” An inquiry by an executive branch body set up to oversee the work of inspectors general concluded Mr. Schmitz had done nothing wrong.
Mr. Schmitz left the Pentagon job in 2005 to become general counsel at Blackwater’s parent company, staying until 2008.
Last summer, as his team continued laying the groundwork to arm Syrian rebels, a Saudi member of the team was approached by a CIA representative in Jordan, who told him to put the brakes on the plan, according to two people involved in the effort.
Mr. Schmitz said he was “shocked and disappointed” that the U.S. government stepped in to quash the deal.
The CIA declined to comment. The National Security Council defended the administration’s Syria policy. “The United States is committed to building the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition,” said an NSC spokeswoman, Bernadette Meehan. “As we have consistently said, we are not going to detail every single type of our assistance.”
Weeks after the showdown in Jordan, the debate about arming Syrian rebels took on a new cast. Up to 1,400 people near Damascus died in poison-gas attacks that the U.S. and Arab and European nations blamed on Mr. Assad’s government. He accused the rebels of using the deadly gas. The Obama administration threatened to attack Syria, backing down when Mr. Assad agreed to destroy his chemical arsenal.
As debate over the proper Western response to the gas attacks was unfolding, talks on Mr. Schmitz’s private arms proposal ground to a halt. Efforts to secure necessary international support faltered, and funding for the deal fell through, according to people working on the plan.
Last week, leaders of the Syrian opposition met with President Barack Obama in Washington as part of a renewed appeal for more-powerful weapons. The administration still declines to provide anti aircraft missiles but is backing a modest pilot program to supply a select group of fighters with antitank TOW missiles.
What effect these will have remains to be seen. This month, Syrian opposition forces had to retreat from Homs, a city seen as the rebels’ spiritual capital.
Gen. Idris said in the interview that the fighters could still use the arms Mr. Schmitz offered to supply, and Mr. Schmitz said he remained ready to push the deal forward.
“If the U.S. government wants us to do it, I’m glad to try to get it going again,” Mr. Schmitz said. “But I’m not going to do anything that smacks of sneaky or illegal.”