OKTYABRSK PORT, Ukraine -- On Jan. 5, the Ocean Fortune, a 116-metre-long workhorse of the global arms trade, left this Black Sea port with unknown cargo concealed in its cavernous hold. The ship steamed south, slipped through the Bosporus Strait and turned toward the eastern Mediterranean. Then it disappeared.
The ship's transponder, which normally sends automated signals to other vessels and harbourmasters along busy sea lanes, went mysteriously silent Jan. 9 just as it was rounding Turkey headed toward open water, maritime records show. Not a trace of the ship was seen for two months until it surfaced in the southeastern Mediterranean in mid-March.
The ship's apparent vanishing act repeated a pattern seen by other freighters embarking from the same Black Sea port -- a known point of origin for weapons shipments -- over the past year. Recently, such behaviour has begun drawing the attention of investigators tracking the flow of arms and supplies to the combatants in Syria's 21/2-year-old civil war.
Western governments have long known that Russia is providing crucial backing for the government of President Bashar Assad, including many of the heavy weapons used to battle opposition forces. But western intelligence officials and independent experts say a substantial portion of the aid appears to be arriving in commercial ships, prompting analysts to look closely at this Cold War-era military port and its long history of arming Russian allies and some of the world's most repressive regimes.
A new study by independent conflict researchers describes a heavy volume of traffic in the past two years from Ukraine's Oktyabrsk port, just up the Black Sea coast from Odessa, to Syria's main ports on the Mediterranean. The dozens of ships making the journey ranged from smaller Syrian- and Lebanese-flagged vessels to tanker-size behemoths with a long history of hauling weapons cargos.
The report by C4ADS, a Washington-based non-profit group, linked some of the larger vessels to a network of businessmen and companies with ties to senior government officials in Russia and Ukraine. The gaps in transponder data, the authors say, are a relatively recent phenomenon that coincides with international criticism of Russia for aiding its longtime Syrian ally despite the government's brutal repression of the civilian population.
'If a ship that's a known supplier of weapons leaves a port and turns off its transponder -- in the FBI, we'd call that a clue'
The authors acknowledged there are no manifests or satellite photos proving the ships carried weapons, and they say shipping data are sometimes imperfect. But they noted the same gaps were seen in 2012 when the Ocean Fortune and its sister ships were delivering heavy weapons to the government of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, who died in March.
"This discrepancy, combined with a history of moving weapons on behalf of the Russian government, is what makes the voyage suspicious," said Farley Mesko, the centre's chief operating officer and a specialist in illicit maritime networks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly defended his country's right to sell arms to Syria, and senior officials have vowed to fill standing contracts to supply aid to Damascus. The United States and several Gulf countries have agreed to supply military gear to rebel militias seeking to overthrow Assad.
Kaalbye Group, the Ukraine-based company that owns the Ocean Fortune, acknowledged in an email one of its ships, the Ocean Voyage, travelled to Syria last year to discharge a "dual-purpose cargo" that was legally permitted under the rules of the International Maritime Organization, but asserted there had been no further travel to Syrian ports by any of its vessels. The IMO's "dangerous goods" guidelines restrict the transportation of explosives and flammable material but do not explicitly ban weapons.
As for the long gaps in transponder data, the company noted that disabling a ship's electronic signal contradicts principles of safe navigation and "therefore violates our company's policy requirements."
Such explanations fail to quiet the suspicions of U.S. officials, who say the handful of documented weapons deliveries do not account for the flood of Russian and Eastern European gear that has entered Syria in recent months. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, has publicly accused Russia of "pouring weapons into Syria like there's no tomorrow."
"Russia has been a sophisticated purveyor of weapons around the world for decades, and the Assad regime is clearly getting resupplied," Rogers, a vocal critic of Russia's backing for the Syrian regime, said in an interview. "If a ship that's a known supplier of weapons leaves a port and turns off its transponder -- in the FBI, we'd call that a clue."
The tide of arms moving into Syria has also been confirmed by other western and Middle Eastern governments and directly linked to a shift in momentum in Assad's favour earlier this year. After months of losing ground to rebels, the Syrian regime recaptured several key towns in early spring with help from Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and what intelligence officials describe as an influx of high-quality arms and equipment.
The materiel that arrived in the winter and spring included refurbished helicopters and battle tanks, replacing those destroyed or disabled during two years of fighting, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials with detailed knowledge of the resupply effort.
Around the same time, Syria received large stocks of artillery rocket launchers and heavy 240-millimetre mortars, two systems frequently used by government troops to bombard opposition-held neighborhoods. It also acquired high-tech gear such as advanced night-vision equipment and field radars that enable Syrian fighters to track and counter incoming mortar fire, the officials said.
"The new Russian equipment has been a huge factor, and very much behind the shift in Assad's favour," said a senior official for a Middle Eastern country that borders Syria. The official agreed to discuss sensitive intelligence on condition his name and nationality not be revealed. "It's not just the amount, it's the quality. It's all the things they really need."
U.S. and Middle Eastern officials think the most sophisticated equipment, including aircraft and tanks, arrived in Russian military ships, including Ropucha-class landing craft, known as LSTs, that have been observed entering the Russian naval facility at Tartus, Syria, a key refuelling station and Russia's only naval base outside former Soviet Union. On at least two occasions, commercial ships are known to have been dispatched to Syria with military-related cargo, including helicopters.
It is much harder to link specific weapons shipments to any of the scores of private vessels that stream in and out of Syrian ports with cargos concealed below decks or inside identical, truck-size shipping containers. But commercial shipping would be the preferred method for delivering more mundane supplies such as machine-guns, small arms and ammunition, the officials said.
"The volume of materiel that Syria is receiving," the Middle Eastern official said, "would suggest that we're not just talking about a few Russian LSTs."
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The Black Sea port that is the focus of questions about Syrian arms shipping is unknown to most westerners, and for good reason: For most of its existence, Oktyabrsk was a top-secret naval installation, a key part of the military supply chain for the Soviet Union and its allies around the world. It was from this heavily guarded port, for example, that Moscow sent nuclear-capable missiles to Havana in 1962, triggering the confrontation that would become known as the Cuban missile crisis.
In some ways, the harbour on the Black Sea's Bug River estuary appears frozen in a kind of Cold War time warp. The port is off-limits to visitors, surrounded by high fences and barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards who peer at passersby from watchtowers and barricaded gates. Only the far banks across the river afford a view of the loading docks, dedicated rail lines and rows of military-style storage bunkers, many of them surrounded by earthen berms as a precaution against accidental explosions.
Upriver, the nearby city of Mikolaev retains a distinctly Soviet flavour. Statues of Soviet military heroes and Vladimir Lenin, the first Soviet leader, dominate the city's central thoroughfare, and the local administrative buildings are still adorned with a Soviet star. The broad avenues and shaded outdoor caf©s suggest a relatively high living standard, reflecting what local residents say are the comparably good wages paid by the port and nearby shipyard.
But it's the type of ships frequenting the port that has drawn the interest of outside investigators. The analysis by C4ADS places Oktyabrsk at the centre of a robust international weapons trade that links Russia and Ukraine to a wide variety of arms customers around the world.
The report identifies Oktyabrsk as the point of origin for weapons shipments headed to more than a dozen countries, many with histories of brutal repression of opposition groups or ethnic or religious minorities. The list of customers include Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, Venezuela, China, Angola and Iran.
Despite being in Ukraine, Oktyabrsk "is functionally controlled by Russia," and the port is headed by a former Russian navy captain and owned by a business magnate with close ties to the Kremlin, the report said. Major Russian weapons exporters have offices there, alongside Ukrainian and Russian shipping and logistics companies the report has dubbed the "Odessa Network."
"This network is a microcosm of how Putin's Russia works: powerful government officials with informal ties to ostensibly private individuals, who basically carry out state policy," said Tom Wallace, a co-author of the report.
-- Washington Post