C.J. Chivers came to reporting for the New York Times by an unusual rout. He graduated from Cornell in 1987, then went in the Marines as an officer. He served in the First Gulf War, then in peace-keeping operations in Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots. He left the Marines as a captain in 1994. Graduate school in journalism at Columbia followed. His first reporting job came with the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. He worked there from 1995 to 1999. In 1999 he moved to the Times, where he had the police beat until 2001. Thereafter he became a foreign correspondent covering the wars with radical Islam. He’s covered the Americans war in Afghanistan, the Russian war with Chechnya, and the American war in Iraq. Lately, he’s been covering the wars in Ukraine and Syria.

As a former Marine, Chivers knows more than does the usual reporter about military weapons. As a war correspondent in the Greater Islamic Area, he’s run into a lot of AK-47s. These qualifications give his reporting a certain cast. He can make firearms themselves tell an interesting story about the conflicts in which they are used. For example, he wrote The Gun (2010), a history of the AK-47. (See: The Gun That Made the Nineties Roar; The Arms Barometer).

Recently, he published a story about the ammunition that has been recovered on the battlefields where troops have engaged ISIS. It turns out that ISIS captures much of its ammunition from defeated foes. Indeed, it appears to select target for attack to some degree or in some cases by the prospect of capturing important stocks of weapons. It isn’t hard to do because a lot of the opponents of ISIS don’t put up much of a fight. Sometimes, anti-Assad groups of Syrians rebels or the Syrian troops they are supposed to be fighting just sell to ISIS the arms that they have been given by foreign patrons.

About 80 percent of the ammunition examined came from the Soviet Union before its collapse, post-Soviet Russia, the United States, China, or from Serbia (the perpetual bad-boy of international morality). A lot of the ISIS ammo came out of captured Syrian warehouses—or off dead Syrian troops. The Soviet Union/Putinia were long-terms sponsors of Syria, so about 18-19 percent of the ammo was manufactured in some version of whatever we’re calling Russia this week. Most of this was produced between 1970 and 1990. So, did the Russkies stop selling to the Syrians from 1990 on? Or was more recently supplied ammo stored in warehouses closer to the center of power? Or was this AK-47 ammunition purchased by the US government from an American re-seller of ammo to fit the AK-47 and other Russian weapons and then given to either Iraqi security forces before they were supplied with American M-16s or to Syrian “moderates”? About 26 percent was manufactured in China during the 1980s, but it is impossible to tell when it was shipped to Syria. About 18 percent of it was manufactured in the United States during the 2000s, so this is ammo supplied to the Iraq security forces after the American invasion of Iraq. Probably, most of this ammo came into the possession of ISIS after the collapse of the Iraqi army in Spring-Summer 2014.[1]

The story by Chivers complicates the Obama administration’s idea of building up “moderate” alternatives to ISIS. For one thing, why is it necessary to train and arm “moderate” fighters when the solution that occurred to ISIS was to go get the weapons that they needed by brute force? Why didn’t “moderates” seize the arms they needed from Syrian forces? Fpr another thing, “moderates” appear to have sold some of the weapons that they have received to ISIS to avoid trouble. Won’t they do that with any new weapons that they receive?

[1] C.J. Chivers, “ISIS’ Ammunition Is Shown to Have Origins in U.S. and China,” NYT, 6 October 2014.

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