Croatia – Syria: deterioration of good relations during the Syrian conflict

The huge stain of Croatia's role in the Syrian conflict has left a bitter taste of betrayal for many Syrians who looked at Croatia as a reliable and very important partner, and a friend.


After the break up of Yugoslavia and Croatia's independence on 1991, bilateral diplomatic relations between Croatia and Syria began, starting with signing a diplomatic treaty on 29 August 1997. The relations between the two countries were good, and in December 2008 culminated with the visit of Croatia's former president Stjepan Mesić to Syria at the invitation of president Bashar al-Assad. President al-Assad returned the visit to Croatia in October 2009.

In both visits the presidents discussed Croatian–Syrian economic cooperation, tourism and the transport infrastructure, as well as the situation in the Middle East. President Mesić expressed his wishes for better economic cooperation between Croatia and Syria and said that Croatia's entry to the European Union would not be an obstacle to their relations.

In addition to President al-Assad's visit, and with the fact that the 9th Contingent of the Croatian Armed Forces was part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNDOF) in the (occupied Syrian) Golan Heights, President Mesić suggested that Israeli and Syrian representatives should have a meeting at the Croatian island of Brijuni, at which he supported return of the Golan Heights back to Syria.

The biggest business cooperation between the two countries was in oil and gas exploration. Croatia's national petrol company INA signed the Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) in 1998 with the Syrian state for the activities of exploration and production of oil and gas on two blocks, Aphamia Block in Hama province, and Hayan Block in Homs province. Thanks to research on the Hayan block, which was conducted on the basis of the first PSA signed in 1998, INA announced six commercial discoveries (Jihar, Al Mahr, Jazal, Palmyra, Mustadyra and Mazrur) with significant deposits of oil reserves, condensate and gas. In order to conduct the oil operations, Hayan Petroleum Company (HPC) was established as a joint venture of INA (contractor) and GPC (General Petroleum Company), but because of what the general management of INA called the "force majeure", INA's activities in the Hayan field lasted only 57 days in 2012.

The most productive period of Croatian-Syrian relations was in 2010 when multiple business meetings and forums were held. In his official visit to Syria in March 2010, Croatian Minister of Economy, Đuro Popijač, and representatives of 27 Croatian companies held a series of bilateral meetings with Syrian counterparts of the Minister of Petroleum and Natural Resources, Minister of Electricity, Minister of Transport and Minister of Tourism, as well as with the Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economy and the Syrian Minister of Economy and Trade. Three memorandums on cooperation and in the areas of competitiveness, competition and public-private partnership were signed and the Croatian draft of the Economic Cooperation and the Agreement on Promotion and Reciprocal Protection of Investments was presented. The Syrian-Croatian economic forum, attended by about 100 representatives of Syrian and Croatian companies, proved to be successful. Minister Popijač stressed in the statement that Croatia in Syria recognizes its trading and investment partners, and that the future of the economic relations lay in the development of higher forms of economic cooperation, such as joint ventures, transfer of technology and know-how, and a joint approach on third markets.

The deterioration of the Croatian-Syrian relationship started with the beginning  of the so-called "Arab Spring" and the first protests in Syria, in March 2011. Under the directives of Washington and Brussels, Croatian government officials followed the same rethoric and policies toward Syria. On 9 May 2011 the European Union made the decision to put an embargo on the export of weapons to Syria. The final verification of the ban on the export of military equipment to Syria was confirmed in June 2011, and Croatia acceded to it on 13 July 2011.

On 31 August 2011 Croatia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs made an official statement and expressed deep concern about the continuation of violence in Syria.

"Instead of the promised launch of the necessary reforms, the Syrian authorities continue to use repressive apparatus against its own people. The Republic of Croatia is concerned to receive reports of killings of a large number of people in Syrian prisons and condemns the brutal attacks on public figures who speak critically about the regime, as well as the sacred places like al Rifai mosque in Damascus," the Foreign Affair Minister Gordan Jandrokovic said. He continued, “The violence against the Syrian people must stop immediately and we join the calls of the International community to President Assad to step down from power and thus allow the necessary changes and the return of peace and stability in Syria."

With this official statement, the Republic of Croatia chose a side in the Syrian conflict and stood with the regime change in Syria. Croatia’s direct engagement in the Syrian conflict in 2012 was perhaps unexpected and came as a surprise to many people, but was that really the case?

On 23 February 2012, former Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović called on Croatian companies to follow the Croatian national oil company INA and withdraw from Syria due to the ongoing armed conflict.

“Participation in international sanctions has its price, and our job as a government is that tomorrow, when Syria establishes a democratic government, all those who committed crimes will be punished, and to protect the Croatian economic interests,” Milanović stated.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Radimir Čačić said INA's decision to halt operations in Syria brought Croatia in line with the EU sanctions against doing business in Syria. Čaćić also stated that sanctions imposed on Syria have very serious consequences for INA's business because almost all of INA's profits rest on their business in Syria, and almost all profits would be lost.

“The (Croatian) Government adopted the EU Council’s decision from November and now the decision of sanctions is implemented in our legal system. We had to do so, so that some day INA would have a legal basis for the re-use of the concession rights in Syria,” Čačić said. Croatia suffered a damage of hundreds of millions of Euros due to the sanctions it applied on Syria.

With these decisions, it became obvious that Croatian government officials expected a quick fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but when the former Foreign Minister Vesna Pusić attended the second summit of the "Friends of Syria" in Istanbul on 1 April 2012, Croatia got directly involved in the Syrian conflict. The leader of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) Burhan Ghalioun called on the international community to recognize the group as the Syrian peoples' sole representative.

"We demand serious action. The Syrian regime will inevitably fall. Don't prolong the catastrophe. The opposition is united; now it is time for you to unite and support the Syrian opposition," Ghalioun said at the opening. Croatia answered the call.

The presence of Croatian weapons in Syria was discovered by British blogger Eliot Higgins, published in several articles on his Brown Moses Blog in early 2013, documenting many of the various types of light and heavy weapons.  Since December 2012 Croatian weapons were seen in the video footage of Syrian rebels published on their YouTube channels.

On February 25 2013, the New York Times published an article stating that Saudi Arabia had "financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters in Syria", and that, "the weapons began reaching rebels in December via shipments shuttled through Jordan". Although, "Washington’s role in the shipments was not clear, officials in Europe and the United States, including those at the US Central Intelligence Agency, cited the sensitivity of the shipments and declined to comment publicly," the article read. "Danijela Barišić, a spokeswoman for Croatia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that since the Arab Spring began, Croatia had not sold any weapons to either Saudi Arabia or the Syrian rebels. 'We did not supply arms,' she said by telephone," the New York Times wrote.

Prior to the New York Times article, Croatian daily newspaper Jutarnji list reported that there had been an unusually high number of sightings of Jordanian cargo planes at Pleso Airport in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. Since Croatian armed forces are switching to NATO standards in armaments, stockpiles are filled with old Yugoslav-era weapons and ammunition. However, as Croatia adopted the EU arms embargo which included all sides in the Syrian conflict, weapons couldn't be sold directly to Syrian rebels.

The discovery raised some serious questions. Given the fact that Jordanian armed forces are well equipped and modernized with no need for old Eastern European weaponry of any kind, it's hard to believe that Croatian secret services as well as the highest Croatian officials, especially the president Josipović, were unaware of the final destination of Croatian weaponry, which then could implicate the whole Croatian leadership in illegal arms trade and violation of the EU's arms embargo imposed on Syria.

According to UN data on international weapons trade, in December 2012 Croatia sold Jordan 233,185 kilograms of weapons worth 6,499,832 US dollars. Croatian officials firstly denied to comment on weapons shipments, but with undeniable proof of presence of Croatian weapons in the hands of Syrian rebels (ISIS included), some official statements did follow.

“I have nothing to comment. This is something that is within all international rules that exist, that is, in the context of what is done regardless of what country is about, which respects the international regulations,” former Minister of Foreign Affairs Vesna Pusić said in a rather stuttering statement when confronted by the reporters in front of the statehouse.  Former Minister of Defense Ante Kotromanović called upon the top military secret and refused to comment any further.

On March 6 2013, former president Ivo Josipović, the successor of president Stipe Mesić, confirmed that he knew about the export of more than 200 tons of Croatian weapons in Jordan in 2012 and stated that Croatia has not exported weapons to Syria, but then Croatia cannot control where the weapons ended.

“I know for all legal transfers of weapons or anything regarding the armed forces,” Josipović told reporters and continued, “As for third countries or countries in which we or other exporting weapons further deal with that, unfortunately we cannot control.”

Following the discovery of Croatian weapons and after the New York Times wrote that the Croatian weapons ended up in the hands of Syrian rebels, in March 2013 the state leadership decided to withdraw troops from the UNDOF peace keeping mission at Golan Heights because it felt it was too dangerous to stay in the area that borders with Syria.

“According to the decisions of the President of the Republic and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and Minister of Defense to withdraw the Armed Forces of the UN mission on the Golan Heights (UNDOF), Chief of General Staff issued an order on their withdrawal and relocation of the field operations and their return to Republic of Croatia.”

It’s worth mentioning some of the events which preceded the arms shipments to Jordan. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came on an official visit to Croatia on October 31 2012, expressing the support of the US administration to the Croatian entry to European Union. In her visit, Clinton also expressed the gratitude for what Croatia has done regarding Syria and Iran.

In November 2012, the representatives of the ''Syrian National Council'' of the Syrian opposition came to Croatia for an official visit. They were led by Jamal al-Assad, the president of the United Syrian Opposition Coalition in Croatia. They held a series of meetings with high Croatian officials, including president Ivo Josipović and Minister of Foreign Affairs Vesna Pusić, and they were recognized by the Croatian government as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. The following month, Croatian weapons started to flow into Syria.

What raises more concern is that Croatian weapons ended up in the hands of Syrian Al Qaeda branch Jabhat al-Nusra (today renamed to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and so called the Islamic State (ISIS). With the formation of Jabhat al-Nusra on January 23 2012, in early February 2012 Al Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri publicly called on Muslims around the world to support rebels in Syria who are seeking to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. By the end of 2012, Al Qaeda's presence in Syria was overwhelming, and it was well accepted by Syrian rebels.

"They have their own leaders and their own structure, they fight side by side with the Free Syrian Army. We have only seen good things from them and they are good fighters," Free Syrian Army's Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi said earlier in 2012.

On December 11 2012 the United States designated, "the radical Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, an important element in the opposition struggle, as a foreign terrorist organization," but that didn't stop the flow of Croatian weapons, nor weapons from other states to that terrorist organization tHrough armed groups under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army.

However, Croatia's policy toward Syria was questioned. On March 23 2013 former president Stipe Mesić gave an interview criticizing the actions of the Croatian authorIties, believing that it is an "unnecessary adventure" that could cost Croatia several hundred million Euros.

"Any country that sells weapons on the international market, must be aware of the possible consequences if the trade is held in the warring zone. The consequences can be various, and one of them is that the weapons fall into the wrong hands. Let’s say in the hands of the Islamists. They need the weapons. Although the government's decision was reckless, I think that because of it will not be big political consequences, but  the consequences could be felt of the economic plan. In Syria there are INA's oil and gas deposits worth billions of dollars. The first misstep was our abandonment of these fields after the EU embargo, and second misstep is being compromised by arming Syrian rebels. If the Assad’s regime holds on for a long time, all of that could cost us greatly.”

In the Balkan region, Croatia leads in arms trade to the Middle East, according to the research done by The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). In their study, since the escalation of the Syrian conflict in 2012, eight countries have approved the shipment of weapons and ammunition worth at least 1.2 billion euros to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. Croatia was placed on the first place with 302 million euros of profit. 6,5 million dollars of weapons shipments to Jordan which was discovered in early 2013 is a small amount, and we can only speculate how many weapons indeed ended up in the hands of Syrian rebels.

Today, the position of the Republic of Croatia regarding Syria follows the same path as official European Union policy and NATO, and for years has not deviated from the regime change plan. No major shifts can be expected. Moreover, it's very rare to hear any statements from Croatian officials on Syria. Since the Syrian Arab Republic documents everything regarding the Syrian war in specific details, Croatia's role will be remembered, and it will affect the future relationship between the two countries.

After more than five and a half years of the most brutal war in modern history, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is still in power and no regime change is in sight. All Western officials expected the quick fall of Syrian government, and by the recent gains of the Syrian Arab Army on many battlefields, especially in Aleppo, and with the deep and firm alliance with Russia and Iran, it's hard to believe that any regime change will happen. But what will most certainly happen is a huge financial loss of Croatian firms, with no oportunities for business cooperation any time soon.

The huge stain of Croatia's role in the Syrian conflict has left a bitter taste of betrayal for many Syrians who looked at Croatia as a reliable and very important partner, and a friend. And that bitter taste will last for a very long time.

Matija Lukač

Matija Lukač is a pro-Syrian activist and researcher of the Syrian conflict; he is also a Special Assistant and Contributor for the Middle East and Syria at the GlobalCIR website.