After the Benghazi attack, there were public reports of Libyan arms, including these types of anti-aircraft missiles, being smuggled to the Syrian resistance fighting Bashar Assad’s regime.
On September 14, 2012, three days after Stevens was killed, Sheera Frenkel, a correspondent for the Times of London, reported from Antakya, Turkey:
A Libyan ship carrying the largest consignment of weapons for Syria since the uprising began has docked in Turkey and most of its cargo is making its way to rebels on the front lines, The Times has learnt.
Among more than 400 tonnes of cargo the vessel was carrying were SAM-7 surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), which Syrian sources said could be a game-changer for the rebels.
Frenkel’s report identified the ship’s captain as “Omar Mousaeeb, a Libyan from Benghazi and the head of an organisation called the Libyan National Council for Relief and Support, which is supporting the Syrian uprising.” This was not the first attempt to ship arms from Libya to the Syrian rebels, apparently:
In late April, Lebanese authorities seized a large consignment of Libyan weapons, including RPGs and heavy ammunition, from a ship intercepted in the Mediterranean. The ship was attempting to reach the Lebanese port city of Tripoli, a largely Sunni city seen as supportive of the Syrian rebellion against President Assad.
In October 17, 2012, about one month after the ship docked in Turkey, Reuters reported, “Amateur footage of rebels using shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles have emerged in recent days.” About a week later, Russia’s top military officer, accused the United States of providing American-made Stinger missiles to the Syrian rebels, a charge the Pentagon and State Department denied.
The American government may not have directed the smuggling of weapons from Libya to Syria through Turkey — but there is evidence to suggest they were aware of it. In June 2012, the New York Times’ Eric Schmitt reported that the CIA had personnel in Syria monitoring, and perhaps assisting, the Syrian rebels’ efforts to obtain weapons in Turkey:
A small number of C.I.A. officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers.
The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.
The C.I.A. officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said.
A March 2013 follow-up report by Schmitt and C. J. Chivers detailed the CIA’s assistance to Arab governments’ efforts to help Syria’s rebels: “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.” The vast majority of the cargo flights of arms and equipment went through Esenboga Airport near Ankara, Turkey.
Was Chris Stevens’s “mission in Benghazi” to buy back weapons? Stevens’s planned agenda for his scheduled five-day stay in Benghazi, according to GQ, included plans to “rechristen the U.S.-managed compound ‘an American Space,’ offering local Libyans English lessons and Internet access and show films and stock a library.”
But his final act as ambassador, on the early evening of September 11, 2012, was a meeting with Ali Sait Akin, the Turkish consul general in Benghazi.
For what it’s worth, the Turkish diplomat denies that he discussed arms transfers with Stevens. He told syndicated columnist Diana West that they didn’t talk about “weaponry from the [Qaddafi] stockpiles and where they might be going; the Libyan flagged vessel al-Entisaar which was received in the port of Iskenderun on September 6, 2012; the conflict in Syria and how the opposition to President Assad could be supported by the US and Turkey.”
During former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Rand Paul asked her if the U.S. was involved in any way in the transfer of weapons from Libya to Turkey.
“To Turkey? . . . Nobody’s ever raised that with me,” Clinton responded. When Paul asked whether the annex, the installation to which Americans fled on the night of the Benghazi attack, was involved, she said, “Senator, you’ll have to direct that question to the agency that ran the annex. I do not know.”
Since last autumn, Syria’s rebels have grown bolder in their use of anti-aircraft weapons in that country’s civil war. In late March, Syrian rebels claimed they shot down an Iranian plane landing at Damascus airport that was suspected of carrying weapons and ammunition for the Syrian government. In late April, Russia’s Interfax news agency claimed that two rockets were fired at a Russian charter plane as it flew over Syria. The plane flew from the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to Kazan in Tartarstan, Russia, with 200 passengers on board. On May 8, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the rebels had shot down a fighter jet.
These published reports indicate a sequence of events less incendiary than the one described by Simon’s sources, but still troubling:
During the Libyan civil war, the United States government at least tacitly supported the Qatari effort to arm the rebels, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. The Obama administration later learned that the weapons were going to Islamists, and acknowledged that the postwar situation of unguarded stockpiles presented an enormous security threat to the region. The CIA was the centerpiece of an effort to recover these weapons, and that was indeed a major component of what the agency was doing in Benghazi in September 2012, in part using the State Department’s facilities. During this time, a large number of weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, were leaving Libya and arriving in Turkey en route to Syrian rebels — and the CIA had personnel in both countries assigned to monitor and assist the arms shipments.
In his February 2012 speech discussing the effort to recover the anti-aircraft missiles in Libya, Assistant Secretary Shapiro made an unnerving concession: “How many are still missing? The frank answer is we don’t know and probably never will.”
That frank answer probably applies to the weapons flowing into Syria, too.