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Syria rebels seek weapons, money on Turkish border

Some fighters make their own weapons as prices have skyrocketed. The only well-stocked militias are those affiliated with Islamist factions.

July 15, 2012|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • A homemade mortar launcher sits at the residence of a Syrian rebel fighter in a Turkish border village. “Whatever we need to produce, we Google it,” says the fighter, whose wife and children sit in the background.
A homemade mortar launcher sits at the residence of a Syrian rebel fighter… (Liliana Nieto del Rio / For…)

ALONG THE SYRIA-TURKEY BORDER — The bomb maker was displaying his homemade mortar launcher, crafted from a tube and bits of metal. "Whatever we need to produce, we Google it," said the factory worker turned rebel commander and arms procurer in a border village where goats and insurgents walk along steep mountain paths.

Most of the time, the weapon remains stashed under a bed in the rented home where the insurgent leader lives with his wife and five children, including two teenage boys who have joined his rebel band.

More than 30 miles away, an emaciated Abed Kafi Abu Zaid lay on an air mattress in the back bedroom of a concrete beige house, paralyzed from a bullet wound to the spine.

"The world has forgotten us," the wounded man, 32, said as he pulled on a cigarette, his narrow face like a death shroud, resigned to his fate.

The two fighters offer another illustration of how Syria's conflict is being felt in neighboring nations — they're on the Turkish side of this more-than-500-mile border.

Turkey's Hatay province has become a logistics base, arms bazaar and convalescence center for Syrian rebels and their supporters — not to mention a hub of intrigue over Islamist funding and squabbling among rebel militias that seem to agree on little else beyond the need to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Syrian fighters may not carry arms openly on Turkish soil, but guns and materiel are stashed in safe houses throughout this region dotted by pine forests, olive groves and pomegranate trees. Wounded fighters and civilians are carted on stretchers across the porous frontier from Syria for medical care. Syrian army defectors pour in after deserting their posts.

With Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan joining calls for Assad's resignation, Turkish authorities appear to look the other way. Even though the government in Ankara has reported a buildup of its forces along the border since Syrian antiaircraft batteries shot down a Turkish jet last month, soldiers seen here seem mostly relaxed and confined to sprawling bases.

Orderly but basic camps strung out along the Turkish side shelter about 30,000 Syrian refugees. Outside their white tents, Turkish flags vie for attention with the green, white and black Syrian revolutionary tricolor. At one border camp, young men were taking a dip last week in a fetid agricultural canal to escape the sweltering heat.

Others hole up in safe houses. At one cramped, ground-floor flat in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, on the main road to the Syrian city of Aleppo, wounded men lay on mattresses on the floor while opposition operatives in long beards peered at computer screens and chatted on Skype.

Some Syrians who have fled the fighting were out and about desperately seeking help for their cause.

Mostly it's a hustle for arms and funds — both hard to come by. There's a lot of frustration in the heavily decentralized insurgent ranks, composed of dozens of militias, most featuring grandiose names evoking Islamic heroes, eagles and lions. Point men and "logistics" reps for various battalions set up shop in Turkey, looking for everything from bullets to foodstuffs to medical supplies.

"I'm on a mission," said a well-built Syrian rebel from the central province of Hama who called himself Abu Ali— like others interviewed, he insisted for security reasons on being identified by a nickname. He spoke as he ate kebab and sipped beer at a restaurant in the bustling city of Antakya.

Abu Ali, 31, an electrician who says he was wounded twice in battle in Hama province, declined to say what his mission was about, which is usually the case in these parts. But talk revolved around weapons and money — mostly the lack of them. Abu Ali, like others, says the only well-stocked militias are those affiliated with Islamist factions. Many Syrian rebels here express frustration with this turn of events, saying the Islamists represent a small minority of the opposition fighters.

"They are just pretending to be religious to get money from the gulf," Abu Ali said of the Islamist battalions and their support from Persian Gulf nations. "They are hiding behind religion."

The Syrian National Council, an opposition coalition based in Istanbul, acknowledges that it has received about $15 million, mostly from the Saudi and Qatari governments, a pair of gulf kingdoms that have publicly backed arming Syrian rebels. The council recently paid salaries for Aleppo-area rebel brigades affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, an insurgent umbrella group also based in Turkey, said Mohammad Sarmini, a council spokesman.

Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political and social movement, has provided funding to a "few" opposition groups, said spokesman Zuhair Salem. That support is limited and is "not based on political party affiliations," said Salem, speaking from London. The money comes from private donations and not from any governments, institutions or companies, he said.

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