Why Is Saudi Arabia Buying 15,000 U.S. Anti-Tank Missiles for a War It Will Never Fight?

Hint: Syria.

BEIRUT — No one is expecting a tank invasion of Saudi Arabia anytime soon, but the kingdom just put in a huge order for U.S.-made anti-tank missiles that has Saudi-watchers scratching their heads and wondering whether the deal is related to Riyadh's support for the Syrian rebels.

The proposed weapons deal, which the Pentagon notified Congress of in early December, would provide Riyadh with more than 15,000 Raytheon anti-tank missiles at a cost of over $1 billion. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Military Balance report, Saudi Arabia's total stockpile this year amounted to slightly more than 4,000 anti-tank missiles. In the past decade, the Pentagon has notified Congress of only one other sale of anti-tank missiles to Saudi Arabia -- a 2009 deal that shipped roughly 5,000 missiles to the kingdom.

"It's a very large number of missiles, including the most advanced version of the TOWs [tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles]," said Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency. "The problem is: What's the threat?"

That's a tough question to answer. A military engagement with Iran, the most immediate potential threat faced by Riyadh, would be largely a naval and air engagement over the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia has fought a series of deadly skirmishes with insurgents in northern Yemen over the years, but those groups have no more than a handful of military vehicles. And Iraq, which posed a real threat during Saddam Hussein's day, is far too consumed by its internal demons and the fallout from the war in Syria to ponder such foreign adventurism.

But one Saudi ally could desperately use anti-tank weapons -- the Syrian rebels. In the past, Riyadh has been happy to oblige: It previously purchased anti-tank weapons from Croatia and funneled them to anti-Assad fighters, and it is now training and arming Syrian rebels in Jordan. Charles Lister, a London-based terrorism and insurgency analyst, said that rebels have also received as many as 100 Chinese HJ-8 anti-tank missiles from across the border with Jordan -- and indeed, many videos show Syrian rebels using this weapon against Bashar al-Assad's tanks.

While most of the rebels' anti-tank weapons were seized from Assad's armories, Lister also believes that several dozen 9M113 Konkurs missiles, an old Soviet weapon, were provided to Islamist rebels in northern Syria this summer. And when these missiles have found their way to the battlefield, they've helped the rebels break through the belts of armor Assad uses to protect strategic areas: "Neutralizing these external defenses has proven key to opening the gates for ground assaults," Lister said.

The Saudis can't send U.S. anti-tank missiles directly to the rebels -- Washington has strict laws against that. Recipients of U.S. arms are not allowed to transfer weapons to a third party without the explicit approval of the U.S. government, which in the case of Saudi Arabia has not been granted. Given Washington's heightened concern over radical Islamist forces seizing control over the conflict -- which resulted in the suspension of nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels on Dec. 12 -- that approval will almost certainly never be given. If Riyadh went ahead and transferred the weapons anyway, it "would be a serious breach of U.S. law," said Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that would "all but certainly lead to a suspension of existing arms sales agreements." So far, only one American anti-tank missile has been identified in Syria -- an older model that Lister speculates may have been sold to Shah-era Iran, transferred to the Assad regime, and then captured by the rebels.

But while the latest American anti-tank weapons might not be showing up in Aleppo anytime soon, that doesn't mean the deal is totally disconnected from Saudi efforts to arm the Syrian rebels. What may be happening, analysts say, is that the Saudis are sending their stockpiles of anti-tank weapons bought from elsewhere to Syria and are purchasing U.S. missiles to replenish their own stockpiles. "I would speculate that with an order of this size, the Saudis were flushing their current stocks in the direction of the opposition and replacing them with new munitions," said Charles Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Regardless of how this purchase of anti-tank missiles relates to Syria, it's undoubtedly part of a larger Saudi arms buildup that has been going on for nearly a decade. From 2004 to 2011, according to a 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service, Riyadh signed $75.7 billion worth of arms transfer agreements -- by far the most of any developing nation. The United States was the major benefactor of this Saudi largesse, as the deals bumped up U.S. arms sales to a record $66 billion in 2011 alone.

How the Saudis plan to use many of these weapons is a mystery. And it's not just the anti-tank missiles whose purpose remains unclear. Riyadh recently bought advanced fighter jets from the United States for a whopping $30 billion -- but the Saudis' lack of pilots and ability to maintain them means that it's an open question how long they can keep them airborne, said William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

But purchasing the weapons, rather than any intent to use them, may be the point for the Saudis. At a time when they are at odds with Washington over the Obama administration's diplomacy with Iran and nonintervention in Syria, the kingdom's deep pockets can at least make sure their ties to the Pentagon remain as strong as ever.

"There was a [Washington] lobbyist who used to say, 'When you buy U.S. weapons, you're not just buying the weapon -- you're buying a relationship with the United States,'" said Hartung. "I think that's kind of the concept."

Mark Wilson/Getty Images


Kosovo's Digital Diplomats

How an army of young people is convincing Facebook, Google, and other Internet giants to recognize one of the world's newest countries.

How do you put a nation on the world map? For centuries, statehood was achieved by spilling blood on the battlefield or by wheeling and dealing among diplomats in smoke-filled rooms. But young states are finding this is only half the story: Becoming recognized on the world stage isn't just about getting voting rights at the United Nations -- it's about winning over Internet giants like Google and Facebook.

Digital diplomacy, whereby diplomats engage with citizens, allies, even rivals online to debate and develop policy and respond to events, is a relatively new concept -- and one that is re-wiring traditional, often hierarchical authority structures. The United States was one of the first countries to subscribe to the idea: Online statecraft was pioneered during Hillary Clinton's time as secretary of state by Alec Ross, Clinton's senior advisor for innovation, and Jared Cohen, a member of her policy planning staff. According to the Brookings Institution, the State Department now has over 150 full-time digital diplomats. Britain and other EU countries have followed suit. And even Iran has put President Hassan Rouhani on Twitter.

But today, it is really small nations, particularly new ones struggling for attention, who are beginning to best use the Internet to their advantage. And Kosovo, steered by eager and resourceful young people who are redefining what digital diplomacy can mean, is leading the way. 

There's certainly plenty for Kosovo to fight for. Five years after unilaterally declaring independence from Serbia and being recognized by 106 U.N. members, Kosovo is still struggling for acceptance by the likes of Russia, China, India, and many other influential countries, some of which are contending with separatist regions of their own. Digital diplomacy could help Kosovo's cause by linking the country's diplomatic officials and citizens to like-minded people in other states, who might in turn apply pressure to their governments to recognize the newest Balkan country.

But there's an additional level to Kosovo's digital diplomacy: The country is being ignored by the likes of Amazon, eBay, Google, Skype, and Yahoo, which do not recognize Kosovo as independent on their sites. Thousands of other, less-known international websites, portals, and social media platforms also have not included Kosovo as a country in their drop-down menus used, among other things, to allow users to identify their locations and enter valid mailing addresses.

The widespread lack of online recognition burdens average Kosovars daily. For example, want to order a book from Amazon and have it delivered to your home in Pristina, Kosovo's capital? Because Amazon doesn't recognize Kosovo as an independent state, you need to put "Albania" as your country of residence, followed by "Kosovo Kosovo Kosovo" in the additional comments box, just to drill home the point that you don't actually live in Albania. And even then, orders end up disappearing in the bureaucratic cracks. Similar headaches abound with other Internet companies.

Kushtrim Xhakli wants to change this state of affairs. Achieving digital recognition, the young Kosovar entrepreneur says, is "about dignity and having a right taken for granted by people around the world."  A former advisor to Kosovo's education minister, Xhakli has pieced together a campaign that sets out to make digital ambassadors out of an entire generation of Kosovars. Over 70 percent of the country's population of two million is under the age of 30, and many of them are plugged in: At just below 80 percent, the country's Internet penetration rate is similar to those of Western Europe. Given the right tools, Xhakli believes, tech-savvy young people can help more conventional diplomats in suits and ties in their quest to win Kosovo recognition, while also making Kosovars' lives easier.

The particular tool he is championing is the new Digital Kosovo platform, which Xhakli helped conceptualize, code and design. Developed and run within the framework of the Pristina-based IPKO Foundation, an independent NGO of which Xhakli is a board member, Digital Kosovo initiative aims to enable Kosovars to utilize online services just like other Internet users across the world. Its website, up and running since September, contains ready-to-use templates based on scenarios where Kosovo is either absent or is listed as part of Serbia or Albania by a company or institution. Anyone can then personalize the template and send it directly to high-level decision-makers at the entity in question -- all within just a few seconds.

The templates are meant to put increasing pressure on major online companies, as well as airports, airlines, newspapers, and universities, that don't recognize Kosovo as independent. The ultimate goal is to make it possible for Kosovars to use the Internet for business, travel bookings, online shopping, and more.

Xhakli and his large army of online volunteers are already bombarding Google Maps with templated messages demanding that the system recognize Kosovo. Messages are also being sent to London and Sydney airports -- which have yet to add Kosovo to their websites -- and to the Brussels airport, where Pristina is still listed as being in Serbia, even though the map of Kosovo is demarcated from Serbia on the airport's information boards.

The backers of the Digital Kosovo platform -- which is funded by the Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the British Council, and the Norwegian Embassy -- view this sort of digital diplomacy as cutting-edge. "Internet recognition of Kosovo is of huge practical and symbolic importance and it is unacceptable that Kosovo still doesn't appear on so many websites," said Myrna Macgregor, First Secretary at the British Embassy in Pristina.

Digital Kosovo claims that its blend of lobbying efforts and citizen advocacy has already brought about victories. In November, following a campaign of sending templated messages and communications with the company, Facebook recognized Kosovo as a state. (Previously, Kosovars wanting to create an account had to register as citizens of Serbia.) Digital Kosovo also says it has helped win over small companies, like MailChimp.

In addition to demanding that institutions recognize Kosovo online, Xhakli -- who, after a wide-ranging early career in telecommunications and energy, could now be called Kosovo's chief digital diplomat -- is working to improve perceptions of Kosovo through other digital avenues. Sometimes, this involves pin-balling across Europe: giving a talk at a tech conference or meeting with Ed Parsons, head of Google Maps. Last year, Xhakli also helped set up Wiki Academy Kosovo, which trained writers and editors to improve the quality and quantity of online content about Kosovo.

Kosovo's burgeoning success in the digital sphere could be a useful model for other nations seeking international recognition, be it South Sudan or Palestine -- which, unlike Kosovo, already has a top-level domain (.ps). That said, there are limits to digital diplomacy's reach. For instance, it can't solve Kosovo's problem of widespread corruption; the country is ranked 111 out of 177 states in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. It also can't remove deep-rooted divisions between ethnic Albanian and Serbian communities. Some observers consider both of these issues impediments to Kosovo's situating itself within the family of European states.

Yet even these problems could be eased in the future if digital awareness and savvy -- this time, on the domestic front -- lead to more open government and makes authorities more alert to abuses of rights, resources, and privilege.

"No one is saying this is a miracle," Xhakli says of his work, "but it is a way or re-imagining the future of democracy and statehood."