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Black market for weapons nearly depleted, smugglers to Syria say

Donors have given money to aid the Syria rebels, but the needed arms are getting harder to find, merchants in Lebanon say.

March 18, 2012|By Los Angeles Times Staff
  • Members of the Free Syrian Army keep watch in a mountainous area of Idlib province in northwestern Syria last week.
Members of the Free Syrian Army keep watch in a mountainous area of Idlib… (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova,…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Lebanon —  

At a small table in a hotel restaurant where elderly men drank coffee and played speed chess, Abu Ismail's phone rang.

He picked it up and squinted at the caller ID.

"Allo," he said. "A 16? How many? $2,000? If it's clean, bring it, yes."

With that, Abu Ismail bought one M-16 assault rifle for the Syrian rebellion.

For months, arms merchants such as Abu Ismail have been buying black-market weapons in Lebanon for the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar Assad. But the arms supply has slowed to a trickle, he says.

"When attacks on protesters began, an RPG cost $300; now it's $800 and there aren't any more to be found," said Abu Ismail, who is from the embattled city of Homs and asked to be identified by a family nickname for security reasons. "The Lebanese weapons market has dried up completely."

The weapons shortage has serious implications for the uprising, even as Syrian expatriate money increasingly flows to the rebels and international support appears to be growing for arming the opposition. On Monday, the opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council announced that it would help arm the Free Syrian Army with the help of foreign governments, which it declined to name.

But little of that seems to affect the situation as rebels find fewer weapons sources and have a harder time getting the arms into Syria.

In the face of a much better-armed Syrian army, the rebels will find it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain their insurgency if a surge of weapons doesn't come soon.

"We don't want intervention or safe corridors…. All we ask for are weapons to be able to protect the people," said Abu Sleiman, a thirtysomething leader of the Martyrs of Tal Kalakh militia in Homs province. "We don't care where the weapons come from."

Some weapons have also come in from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, but rebels report that it has been easier to get arms from Lebanon. Even that route — the one also used by fleeing families, journalists and humanitarian aid — is dangerous, and many rebel smugglers have been killed along the way.

Despite talk from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar of arming the rebels, no money has come from other nations, they say. Instead, much of it has come from expatriates. Until recently, many of them were supporting nonviolent aspects of the uprising, but now they have diverted much of the money for weapons, said Amr Al-Azm, an opposition activist who is involved with the Syrian National Council.

"They believe that by putting money into arms it will somehow accelerate the downfall of the regime," he said. "I speak to activists who complain they are no longer able to buy the tools they need, like laptops or phones."

Last month, opposition leaders received $100,000 from a Syrian businessman in Turkey, said Abu Fahad, a leader in the opposition who recently fled to Tripoli, a northern Lebanese city. But he didn't know where they would be able to spend the money given the dearth of arms.

The conflict in Syria isn't the only thing depleting the weapons black market. Underscoring international fear that the unrest in regionally strategic Syria will spill over its borders, Lebanese who support Assad and those backing the opposition are also buying up weapons, Abu Ismail said.

Like other merchants, he doesn't have the ability to smuggle weapons from other countries into Lebanon so he must try to find them from the few sources that are left in Lebanon: Hezbollah, which has long been backed by Syria, and others that support Assad.

When Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon in 2005, it left behind large caches of light weapons with Hezbollah and other pro-Assad militias-turned-political parties. Now some of those weapons are being stolen by members of these parties and sold to the merchants who are supplying the rebels, the same scenario that is happening between the Syrian army and the rebels.

Money, Abu Ismail said, trumps political loyalty.

But not always. Some of the ammunition and grenades have been manipulated — filled with TNT — to explode inside the weapons, killing the rebels, he and others have said. Other times the weapons are just duds.

"It's happened a lot," he said.

From the merchants, the weapons are turned over to rebels, who smuggle them across the border.

The rebel smugglers often carry more than 30 pounds of weapons or ammunition strapped to their backs, and trek as far as 13 miles on mountain trails, sometimes spending the whole night walking, said Abu Sleiman, who spoke as he recovered in a northern Lebanese village after being shot in the leg during clashes.

The smugglers switch up the trails regularly, and watch them around the clock to ensure that the army doesn't plant them with mines, which rebels say has been happening on the Lebanese and Turkish borders. Human Rights Watch released a report last week calling for the Syrian government to stop the mining, calling it "unconscionable."

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