Arms smugglers thrive on Syrian uprising

Lebanese arms dealer says the first months of anti-Assad protests across the border rocketed prices skyward.

By REUTERS
November 25, 2011 22:50
Kalashnikov rifles [illustrative]

Kalashnikov rifles 311 (R). (photo credit: Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters)

BAALBEK, Lebanon - Weapons dealer Abu Wael has traded guns in Lebanon's Bekaa valley since the last days of his country's civil war, nearly a quarter of a century ago.

This has been his busiest year ever.

Unrest in neighboring Syria has sent demand for weapons soaring, doubling prices for Kalashnikov assault rifles and other weapons and helping supply the increasingly well armed insurrection challenging Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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They say there has also been an increasing flow of guns and RPGs into Syria from the Sunni Muslim tribes of Iraq's Western Anbar province, who have close ties with their brethren in eastern Syria, hundreds of miles from Damascus.

"Due to the inter-tribal ties across the border, Iraqi tribes are helping defecting groups in the Deir al-Zor area. But the quantities remain small and the long distances make it difficult to transport many arms," Kurdi added.

A tribal figure from the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor, who identified himself as Sheikh Abu Ismail, said more weapons might be supplied in future "depending on developments on the ground and what turn the revolution takes."

"The borders are not sealed... so arms flows would accelerate in the future if the regime continues its repression and killings," he told Reuters by telephone.

The United Nations says more than 3,500 people have been killed in Assad's crackdown on protests. Authorities have since the start of the unrest blamed armed groups for the bloodshed, saying they have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.

Sheikh Abu Ismail said money to finance the trafficking was coming from Sunni Muslim Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which sees Assad's alliance with Shi'ite Iran as a challenge to its regional clout.

Rebels relying on 'inside supplies'

Western diplomats say there is no proof of any state role in directly financing or arming the rebels, suggesting they have so far been able to rely primarily on guns already in the country.

"It's not unreasonable to assume that a lot of the stuff they get is from inside," a Damascus-based diplomat said.

"I don't think there has been mass, coordinated gun-running. But I suspect that if there are tribal members across the border asking for help, they will get it," he said, citing the Jordanian and Iraqi frontiers with southern Syria.

"There's no sense yet that governments have been [involved]. There's been saber-rattling - saying this is what we could do - but we haven't seen that yet."

Jordan says smuggling across its border took place before the uprising and has continued, but only in very limited cases. "Authorities have always had an iron grip on the borders," Jordanian Information Minister Rakan al-Majali told Reuters.

A Syrian man involved in arming the deserters said the main source for weapons "is the Syrian army itself."

"With the corruption that has infested the country, you can buy a lot from the army," he said. "I heard of one case where a whole arms depot was being offered to be cleared but there were no takers because it was feared it could be a trap."

Efforts to play down the role of arms trafficking may be a deliberate policy by activists who have relentlessly sought to accentuate the peaceful side of the Syrian uprising.

"I think there is an effort by activists helping the defectors to cover up the fact they are smuggling weapons," said one Assad opponent from the central city of Homs.

"They want to keep the media focused on the peaceful revolution happening, not on the armed rebels fighting the army. They are definitely smuggling weapons, I'm sure of it."

In Baalbek, Abu Wael complains that business has dried up in the last two months, as Lebanese authorities clamped down on the trade and Syria started planting mines on the border.

"The arms market in Lebanon today is frozen. Buying and selling has almost stopped."


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