Small arms are increasingly in demand inside volatile Syria, particularly among the country’s Alawite minority, who fear they may face retaliation over the revolt against their co-religionist, President Bashar Assad.
Most of the weapons are being smuggled in from Lebanon, once an end user of small arms during the country’s 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. Today, Lebanon is overflowing with automatic weapons, grenades and hunting rifles, all of which are in demand in neighboring Syria.
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“The proliferation of arms is not new. What is new that that the arms smuggling is now going to Syria and not the other way around,” Fadi Abi Allam, a Beirut-based researcher on small arms market in the Middle East, told The Media Line.
He said the 330-kilometer (205-mile) border between Lebanon and Syria was rife with smuggling routes and difficult to patrol.
“There are lots of hills and valleys and mountains on both sides and people have relations on both sides of the border, so there is a good opportunity for moving arms from side to side,” said Allam, who is president of the Permanent Peace Movement, a conflict resolution organization.
Over the weekend, Lebanese troops nabbed a van transporting a cache of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades into Syria. According to the state-run Lebanese National News Agency, the soldiers seized the truck on the Halba-Khraibeh highway about 140 kilometers north of Beirut. The driver, who managed to flee, was reported to have been from Wadi Khaled, a Lebanese border town where thousands of Syrians have fled the uprising against Assad that broke out in March.
One anonymous Lebanese weapons dealer was quoted by the Daily Star in Beirut as saying the Syrians were “driving up prices.” He said that since the revolt began, the price of a used Kalashnikov assault rifle has risen from $800 to $1,500, a grenade from $5 to $10 and a rocket-propelled grenade from $70 to over $200 each. Even shotguns, usually smuggled in from Turkey, have jumped from $200 to $500, he said.
Syrian authorities have accused Lebanese groups allied with former Lebanese President Saad Hariri, a Sunni, of supporting the smuggling of weapons and cash to the opposition. Hariri denies the charges and analysts also said the flourishing arms market was due less to political intrigue against the Alawite-dominated regime than to a chance to make quick profits or procure weapons for self defense.
One sector reportedly arming itself is Alawite villagers, who want to protect themselves from possible reprisals from the majority Sunnis should their revolt succeed in toppling Assad’s Alawite rule.
There are no statistics how many guns exist in private hands in Syria. But unlike Lebanon, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, the repressive regime in Damascus has allowed relatively few weapons circulating in the Syria. Syria has been a major conduit for arms transfers, mainly from Iran to Hizbullah in Lebanon. But this was always under the strictest supervision of Assad’s regime.
“We have a lot of arms in Lebanon and they exist everywhere and with everybody. This is because of the many militias that existed during the civil war between 1975 and 1990. The government collected the heavy weapons, but not the small arms,” Allam said.
“With the tensions rising, it is only logical that people are trying to protect themselves, particularly amid the weakening of the [Syrian] military,” Allam said. “It’s not just the Alawites, but the Sunnis and many others who are arming themselves.”
Syrian authorities have accused those revolting of using arms against government troops and say 1,100 troops have been killed in the violence. The United Nations has said the iron-fisted crackdown has killed over 3,000 people.
The Syrian army has deployed along the border with Lebanon, reportedly
to prevent army deserters and Syrian refugees from fleeing into Lebanon.
On Sunday, a large force swept through the village of Zabadani on the
border, and Reuters said army defectors engaged in heavy firefights with
government troops. At least 100 were reported arrested.
Reports from Lebanon said that military commanders had recently met with
Syrian officers to beef up patrols along the border aimed at preventing
arms trafficking. Hizbullah, a staunch ally of Assad’s regime, has also
reportedly begun boosting its presence along the border in the eastern
Bekaa region to top arms smuggling.