Arms shipments to Syrian rebels slows


For months, arms merchants 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.

“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. Last Monday, the opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council announced 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 on the ground 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 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 on arming the rebels, no money has come from other nations, they say. Instead, much of it has come from expatriate Syrians. 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 buy the arms.

The conflict in Syria isn’t the only thing depleting the market. Underscoring international fears that the unrest 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 can’t smuggle weapons from other countries into Lebanon so he must try to find them from the few sources that are left: 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 members of these parties are stealing those weapons and selling them to merchants supplying the rebels — the same scenario that is happening between the Syrian army and the rebels inside the country.

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 on their backs, and trek through mountain trails three to 13 miles long, said Abu Sleiman, who is recovering in a Lebanese village after being shot in the leg during clashes.

The smugglers switch up the trails regularly, and guard them around the clock to ensure that the army doesn’t plant mines, which rebels say has been occurred on the Lebanese and Turkish borders.

Protesters detained

The Syrian authorities briefly detained 11 members of one of Syria’s most moderate opposition groups during a demonstration involving more than 150 protesters in central Damascus on Sunday. The move signaled an expanded crackdown and dismayed the protesters, who have called for dialogue with the government and, unlike many other activists, have opposed the use of violence in the yearlong uprising.

Also on Sunday, a car bomb exploded in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, a day after two similar bombings struck the capital, Damascus, fueling fears that the conflict was becoming increasingly violent, with attacks on relatively quiet cities that are centers of support for President Bashar Assad. The Aleppo bomb exploded near a state security office in a residential neighborhood, activists said. SANA, Syria’s official news agency, said two people were killed and 30 were wounded.

The New York Times