LONDON – Jeremy Corbyn falsely claimed that British-made weapons exported to Saudi Arabia were being secretly provided to militant groups in Syria, Middle East Eye can reveal.
Speaking on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show in the wake of UK air strikes against Syria, the Labour leader claimed that British weapons exported to Saudi Arabia “end up… in very bads hands” in Syria.
Asked if he would support action in Syria if it had UN backing, he said: “Well, the issue was what would the effect be of it? Would it in effect spawn something worse? Would it kill civilians? And was there another way of doing it, such as cutting off the supply of finance and supply of arms to ISIS.
“Now, remember, our exports, our exports that go to Saudi Arabia, for example, end up killing people in the Yemen. But also end up somewhere in very bad hands, in Syria and other places. We’ve got to think through what we promote as policy.”
‘There is no evidence that Saudi Arabia is secretly providing armed groups in Syria with UK-made weapons’
Damien Spleeters, Conflict Armament Research
British-made weapons exported to Saudi Arabia have been used extensively over Yemen, to the dismay of rights groups, and Riyadh does support rebel groups in Syria, but there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia has supplied British-made arms to the Islamic State group (IS) or any other militant group.
When approached by MEE, Corbyn’s spokesman pointed to a December 2017 report by arms monitoring group Conflict Armament Research (CAR) on arms transfers to IS.
The report found that arms provided by the United States and Saudi Arabia to Syrian opposition groups frequently ended up in the hands of Islamic State.
But the report, which is based on three years of research and documents the origin of 40,000 recovered Islamic State weapons, does not support the Labour leader’s claim.
Damien Spleeters, head of regional operations at CAR, told MEE that there is “no evidence that Saudi Arabia is secretly providing armed groups in Syria with UK-made weapons”.
Spleeters added that the report found that the only UK-made weapons being used by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq date back to the Second World War.
— Damien Spleeters (@damspleet) February 5, 2018
He said the only UK-made weapon recorded in the hands of Islamic State in Syria was a single Bren light machine gun dating from 1954, while three post-war Sterling machine guns and a Lee Enfield rifle dating back to 1936 were recorded in Iraq.
Corbyn’s spokesman did not respond to further requests for comment.
‘Appalling double standards’
Corbyn’s comments have prompted accusations that the Labour leader, a former chair of the Stop the War Coalition and fierce critics of western intervention, is “guilty of appalling double standards” after he demanded high standards of evidence over the Douma chemical attacks and the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury last month.
Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, a former minister and chair of the influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told MEE: “Jeremy Corbyn has rightly demanded high standards in regard to the evidence for attribution of chemical weapons offences, both in Syria and Salisbury.
“To then repeat gossip in regard to weapon diversion, on which there is not a shred of evidence, indeed contradicted by leading NGOs expert in this area, not only further damages his already weak credibility on these key security issues, but makes him guilty of appalling double standards.”
The only UK-made weapon recorded in the hands of Islamic State in Syria was a single Bren light machine gun dating from 1954, while three post-war Sterling machine guns and a Lee Enfield rifle dating back to 1936 were recorded in Iraq
– Conflict Armament Research
Johnny Mercer, a former soldier and Conservative MP, told MEE: “From claiming that the chemical weapons attack in Syria might have been staged, to this, Jeremy Corbyn needs to stop auditioning for the role of Russia’s primary ‘useful idiot’ in the west … This is becoming a farce.”
The UK has exported more than $6.4bn in arms to Saudi Arabia since the start of the war in Yemen in 2015, including advanced jets and munitions, in the face of fierce opposition from rights groups and an ongoing legal challenge from anti-arms trade campaigners over allegations UK weapons have been used to kill civilians in Yemen.
But, CAR’s research found that while some weapons in Syria and Iraq were originally provided by other countries, mainly the United States and Saudi Arabia, most weapons used by Islamic State were looted from the Iraqi and Syrian armies.
It found that 90 percent of weapons seized from Islamic State in Iraq and Syria originated from China, Russia and Eastern Europe, undermining claims by the militant group about the scale of its seizure of Western-made weapons.
Russia is allied with Assad and launched air strikes in Syria in September 2015, its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in his favour.
A picture taken on November 5, 2017, shows Russian, Chinese and other weapons reportedly seized by Syrian government forces during a military operation against Islamic State (IS) group in Deir Ezzor (AFP)
But CAR did not record any instances of UK-made weapons being exported to Syria via Saudi Arabia or any other country.
Oliver Sprague, Amnesty UK’s arms control programme director, told MEE that it was “absolutely true that Saudi arms have been diverted in large numbers to Syria”, but that there was no evidence this included UK-made weapons.
“If we had evidence of [UK] weapons being diverted, that would trigger extra grounds for the UK to stop arming Saudi Arabia,” he said.
‘No such thing as arms control’
However, anti-arms trade campaigners have warned that British non-lethal support for Syrian armed groups could end up in the hands of armed groups aligned to Islamic State, while Campaign Against Arms Trade has repeatedly warned that there is “no such thing as arms control in a conflict zone”.
Andrew Smith, a director at CAAT, told MEE: “We’ve not seen evidence of Saudi Arabian forces transferring UK arms to ISIS or any other actor in Syria, or of the UK arming them directly. There are questions about the Saudi regime arming violent groups, but we’re not aware of UK arms specifically being passed on.
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“However, there is no doubt that violent groups and non-state actors in the region do have UK arms. Amnesty and others have documented how arms sold to other governments in the region have been obtained by ISIS and violent groups like it.
“The lifespan of weapons is almost always far longer than that of the governments they are sold to or the political situation they are sold into.
“There is no such thing as arms control in conflict zones, and for far too long, successive UK governments have poured arms into politically volatile situations around the world.
The CAR report did document at least 12 cases of weaponry purchased by the United States that ended up in Islamic State’s hands, either captured on the battlefield or acquired through shifting alliances within the Syrian opposition. Most of these items later ended up in Iraq, the monitor said.
The lifespan of weapons is almost always far longer than that of the governments they are sold to or the political situation they are sold into
– Andrew Smith, CAAT
CAR also traced numerous items used by Islamic State back to Bulgarian imports from Saudi Arabia, and that these were also subject to non-retransfer clauses that should have barred them from being supplied to Syrian warring parties.
A spokesperson for the Department for International Trade, which regulates arms exports, refused to be drawn on Corbyn’s comments.
They said: “The UK government takes its export control responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust export control regimes in the world. We rigorously examine every application on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, with risks around diversion being a key part of our licensing assessment.
“We will not grant a license if doing so would be inconsistent with these criteria and will suspend or revoke licences when the level of risk changes.”