JABAL AL-ZAWIYA, Syria | At the Free Syrian Army base here, a group of men led a nervous prisoner from his cell to a car waiting outside. A few hours later, the rebels returned alone, with a trunkload of weapons.
As they loaded the store room with new bullets and rocket-propelled grenades, Hamza Fatahallah, an army defector who joined the Free Syrian Army nine months ago, described the transaction that had taken place.
“We have caught many army prisoners,” he said. “We send them back home for a small amount of money on the condition they do not return to the regime. We use the money to buy weapons.”
For the release of this prisoner, Ahmed Haseeba, the group received $500. With this money, Fatahallah said they were able to buy ammunition from their main supplier: Syria’s national army, also known as the enemy.
This strange cycle of exchanging prisoners for weapons has been playing out between rebel forces and President Bashar al-Assad’s army since the beginning of the revolution.
Fatahallah estimated that his village purchased 40 percent of their weapons from the regime. Prisoner exchanges have so far contributed almost $80,000 toward weapons purchases, he said. And they obtain an additional 50 percent of their weapons during battle. The remaining 10 percent are donated and smuggled from outside the country, or are purchased from private merchants, mostly from Iraq.
Occasionally, prisoners are also exchanged directly for weapons, Fatahallah said. They have received up to two Kalashnikov rifles in exchange for a prisoner in the past.
For the regime, or at least the duplicitous members of it, supplying the enemy is a big business. Government officers also sell Kalashnikov bullets, which typically sold for less than 40 cents before the uprising, for about $4 each, according to Ahmed Al Sheikh, the leader of the armed opposition in Jabal al-Zawiya. He leads about 6,000 men from eight battalions that are collectively known as the Sham Falcons.
Kalashnikovs are bought for about $1,000, he said. Rocket-propelled grenade launchers, complete with a set of four rockets, cost up to $4,000, as does a BKT machine gun.
“These officers sell to us not because they love the revolution but because they love money,” Al Sheikh said of his chain of suppliers. “Their loyalty is to their pockets only, not the regime.”
While most of the sellers are corrupt officers, they said lower ranking soldiers have occasionally stolen supplies from government weapons storage and sold them to the rebel forces.
The relationship is not always a smooth one.
Back at the base, the men were relaxing after lunch when a loud explosion shocked everyone to their feet. As they feared, the previous night’s purchase of Kalashnikov bullets had been booby-trapped. This time their colleagues were lucky enough to survive the discovery.
The men had learned from prior experience – bullets acquired from the regime are sometimes emptied of their gunpowder and filled with TNT designed to destroy the Kalashnikov and its owner, rather than the enemy.
After several injuries and the loss of two rifles, the men had learned to spot the fakes. To everyone’s relief this had been a controlled explosion, by someone suspicious of the new batch. The damage inflicted was only a blackened hand, some singed hair and a hole in the table.
“These ones here are good bullets,” said battalion leader Asad Ibrahim, showing the red marking on the base of one of the bullets. Holding up another with a slightly darker red off-center mark he said, “These are Bashar’s bullets to explode our guns.”
The men said bullets like these have destroyed many guns and killed or seriously injured several of their fellow fighters. But desperate for ammunition, they take the risk.
Commander Al Sheikh said that half of the Sham Falcon arsenal are seized from the enemy. Most are taken either during battle, or after attacks on government checkpoints. And the rebels carry out organized raids on government weapon stores whenever they can.
During an attack on a checkpoint in Mughara last week, Al Sheikh proudly boasted that his men had managed a rare grab: a T62 tank along with anti-aircraft weapons.
Another source of arms is from the army defectors themselves, who bring their own weapons along when they join the rebel forces.
Sitting at the base, the men laughed as they recalled the story of two friends, both defectors, who told their superior they needed one of the gun-mounted vehicles and some heavy weapons to check on a call regarding rebel activity. Loading the truck with as much ammunition and weapons as they could find, they drove straight toward the rebels, checking in by radio with their boss with stories of hunting down “rebel traitors” hours after they had already betrayed sides.
While the Free Syrian Army has been adept at obtaining weapons, it has also proven skillful in manufacturing their own.
In a secret warehouse across town from the base, fertilizer and sugar were being boiled in a large pot. Everything from teapots to large metal pipes were being filled to make roadside bombs for attacks on tanks and army vehicles. 23mm bullet casings were filled with explosives with a small wick on top, looking more like an ACME special from a Loony Tunes cartoon than a deadly hand grenade.
“We are using very simple weapons against the highly sophisticated weapons of the regime – tanks, rockets, missiles. What a government! What a regime. Doing nothing but killing their people,” Fatahallah said during a tour of the busy workshop.
The men from the battalion spoke constantly of the need, not for military intervention from abroad, but for international help in obtaining more weapons. But with or without this support, they vowed to continue the fight until Assad is removed.
“The Quran says to prepare whatever weapons you can to fight your enemy,” said Al Sheikh, the commander, as his local leaders discussed preparations for their next mission.
“Even if no weapons are available and all we have left to use are stones, we will go on with our revolution until Assad falls.”