Where Are Syria’s Weapons Coming From?


Rebel soldiers took over this school in a village in northern Syria, where classrooms became dormitories for rebel fighters who used the nails above a blackboard to hang their weapons. (Credit: Olly Lambert)

April 9, 2013
Rania Abouzeid covers the Middle East for TIME. She regularly travels clandestinely inside Syria to report on events there. She also covered the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and has reported on wars, assassinations and popular movements in Pakistan, Iraq and Lebanon.

Where Are Rebels Getting Their Weapons?

Over the past two years, while the international community debated – and continues to debate – the merits and pitfalls of arming the Syrian opposition, the rebels have become adept at scrounging for supplies. Some ammunition and armaments are bought on the regional black market and smuggled across Syria’s borders, mainly from Turkey and Iraq, while others are purchased within Syria from corrupt regime soldiers. Much is war booty, captured by overrunning checkpoints or winning control of government outposts.

Some rebels have also resorted to more creative means, such as organizing weapons collectives. In a town in Idlib province, several rebel groups operate a makeshift weapons factory as a collective. The five battalions that use it have to secure their own primary materials, for example, phosphate-based fertilizers, and share the labor costs for the factory’s three permanent employees. But they don’t have to pay for the finished weapons, which include homemade mortars of various sizes, grenades and short-range rockets.

And since mid-spring and early summer of 2012, there has also been a more organized Saudi and Qatari sponsored effort, which according to The New York Times has been backed with the blessing of the U.S. and Turkey, which permits the flow of these weapons into Syria. The armaments and ammunition were distributed to select groups through the rebel Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) various hierarchical structures, including its provincial military councils. Both countries officially deny providing arms to the rebels, although the operation is an open secret inside Syria, according to more than a dozen rebel commanders in the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqa, who receive the weapons, and rebel representatives who distribute them.

The Saudi-Qatari effort was plagued early on by personal rivalries and favoritism in the distribution of arms, as well as disorganization. A loose franchise outfit, the FSA has never been an organized military force with any form of top-down command and control.

By late summer, Saudi Arabia and Qatar were no longer on the same page regarding which among the plethora of armed rebel groups they supported. Rebel commanders across northern Syria bitterly complained about the inconsistent nature of supplies, and the lack of heavy weapons.

The flow, however inconsistent, did help the rebels push forward and win huge chunks of territory across northern Syria. Since late last year, there appears to have been an influx of weapons across the Jordanian border into nearby areas of Syria like Dara’a, according to weapons analysts monitoring the conflict and some media reports.

How Much Do They Cost?

The price on the black market of some items like hand grenades has fluctuated wildly. In March 2013, a grenade cost about 8,000 Syrian pounds ($80) in Idlib province, up from 5,000 in late 2011. Two years ago, it cost 1,800 (half the current price taking into account currency fluctuations).

The price of some armaments has remained relatively steady for the past six months, such as a DShKM 12.7 anti-aircraft gun which is still about 1.5 million Syrian pounds, give or take the currency changes, according to several weapons dealers and rebel commanders I spoke with in Idlib province.

A Kalashnikov bullet now costs about $1.50 in Idlib, down from a high of $4 a year ago. The fluctuations are based on the availability of supplies, but demand has always been high.

What Kinds of Weapons Does the Regime Have?

Before the onset of the uprising, the Syrian army was a force of some quarter of a million men. Defections have slowly eroded its manpower, but the regime has buttressed its uniformed forces with the support of paramilitary groups, like the shabiha and Jaysh al-Shahbi, as well as armed civilian neighborhood vigilantes known as the popular committees.

Mainly supplied by Russia, the Syrian military has a range of armaments at its disposal including armored vehicles like tanks (T-72s and others, as well as BMPs), various artillery and rocket systems and ballistic missiles.

It also dominates the air with its MIG fighter jets and helicopter gunships, although the recent rebel acquisition from various sources, including the regime’s own stockpiles of anti-aircraft missiles, has helped somewhat erode the air force, which nonetheless remains a potent force.

The Politics of Distribution

Meanwhile, the struggle to secure weapons and ammunition is further aggravating rifts within the armed opposition by fueling competition among the groups to secure funding from wealthy patrons in the Gulf and elsewhere, as well as the little provided by the Free Syrian Army’s military councils.

The military councils, which represent each of Syria’s 14 provinces, were supposed to be the main source for weapons and ammunition and thereby a form of leverage with fighting groups. But because weapons have been coming from elsewhere, they have little influence over the men on the ground. Even the council’s promised salaries to fighters failed to materialize. There was a one-time payment – of about $200 for a married man; $120 for singles; and less than $100 for expenses – and that was months ago.

Armed men are gravitating toward commanders in the field who can fill their ammunition vests. Other battalions have joined “supergroups” – coalitions like Al-Jabhat Islamiya la Tahrir Syria (The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front) as a means to maximize their sources of supplies.  “They’re everywhere,” explained the FSA’s chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Salim Idris. “The main aim of all of these groupings is to get support. They hear that ‘Well, today, there is a financier who is supporting Jabhat Tahrir Syria,’ so they join it.”

These new patronage networks — with emerging warlords — could set Syria up for a bloody round of infighting, even after the fall of the regime. “If warlords, with funding and many weapons, form and the regime doesn’t fall, what have we achieved?” Idris asks. “This regime can destroy us all if we don’t work hand in hand. If we want to create empires and [supergroups] at the expense of the blood of the martyrs, I think this is treason. It is traitorous.”

The weapons — whether from the military councils, wealthy patrons or political parties — often come with strings attached in the form of pledges of loyalty. But not everyone is willing to do that.

Abu Hussein, a former civil servant turned rebel commander who makes rockets in Jabal al-Zawya in Idlib province, said he hasn’t asked the military councils for help because he refuses to pledge allegiance. “The Muslim Brotherhood approached me, I also refused,” he said.

Other fighters, like Abu Mos’hab, a deputy commander of an Islamist unit of the FSA fighting in Aleppo, says he will pledge loyalty to everyone, but that doesn’t mean he is beholden to anyone:

I go to the military councils, say “Yes, yes I am with you.” I take what they offer me. I go to the Muslim Brothers, I say the same thing. I go to a financier, say “On my head, I am your man” and take what he gives me, then I come back and pool it all together. What are they going to do? Let them try and ask me to vote for them or support them after [the fall of the regime]. They will get nothing from me.

Some groups fervently upload snippets of their fighting to YouTube. The videos serve as advertisements to solicit funding from people impressed by a group’s work.

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