Undergunned and Overwhelmed
Syria's rebels have to bear hours of negotiations for every box of bullets that they haul across the border for their war against Bashar al-Assad. And their frustration is starting to show.
ANTAKYA, Turkey — "Fouad," a rail-thin Syrian in tight jeans who looks at least a decade older than his 25 years, leans forward in a black faux leather armchair in an unheated, sparsely furnished room in this southern Turkish city.
"I need ammunition," he tells Abu Mohammad, a stocky Turkish weapons dealer sitting impossibly upright on the stiff couch. "I’ll pay five and a half." He quotes the price in Turkish liras — about $3 per bullet.
Abu Mohammad smirks. He carefully places his white, half-moon Turkish coffee cup on the small square table in front of him. "They’re seven each," he says. "If you can get them for five and a half, I’ll buy them from you."
Fouad shakes his head, takes another draw from his cigarette, and slowly capitulates on the price, but not before complaining that a bullet cost three lira about a month ago. "Just get them," he finally says. "And what about weapons? I heard there’s a stockpile of 4,000 bullets and lots of guns, but it’s near an Alawite village [in southern Turkey]."
Abu Mohammad confirms the information, but says that it will be difficult to clandestinely buy any of the Turkish military supplies, and harder still to discretely ferry them out of the village, inhabited by Turkish co-religionists and assumed sympathizers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"You know, I don’t want anything from you," Abu Mohammad says. "I’m Sunni too, I just want to help." It’s Fouad’s turn to smirk.
The Turkish dealer pulls his phone out of his dark leather jacket and calls an associate called Qadir, switching from Arabic to Turkish. After a few minutes, his phone is back in his pocket. "I’ll get you the goods," he tells Fouad. "But you know, this is a lot of work."
"Don’t worry, you’ll be paid for your trouble," Fouad says, turning to a gray-haired Syrian also in the room. "These Turks," he says dismissively, "they talk a lot don’t they? From [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan down, they talk, talk, talk, but so far, it’s only talk. God willing, this one is different."
Abu Mohammad brushes off the slight. It’s a seller’s market, and professional smugglers like Fouad, a civilian who supplies arms to some of the ragtag bands of Syrian rebels in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) operating just across the border in the governorate of Idlib, have few options. "It’s like the black market has dried up," Fouad says later, after the brief meeting. "Can you believe it? In the Middle East!"
It’s a view widely shared by defectors, arms dealers, and refugees alike here along the Turkish-Syrian border. For months, Assad’s opponents have been buying black-market weapons from the countries bordering their volatile state — from Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan — as well as from within Syria, primarily from members of the corrupt regime or military sympathizers who remain embedded with loyalists. But it’s getting harder. Money doesn’t seem to be the main problem. Securing supplies is.
The international community has grappled for months with the issue of whether or not to arm the Free Syrian Army, a loose band of defectors and civilian thuwar (revolutionaries). Ahead of an April 1 meeting of the "Friends of Syria," a group of countries that support the anti-Assad forces, Turkey and the United States agreed to establish a framework for shipping non-lethal aid to the rebels. But the provision of this aid — much like the conversation with the Turkish arms dealer — has been more talk than action.
Nor have Assad’s staunchest enemies — the Arab Gulf kingdoms — opened their armories to the rebels. In late February, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal raised the FSA’s hopes when he said that arming Assad’s opponents was "an excellent idea." Yet, more than a month later, Saudi supplies have not made their way to the front, according to the FSA leadership as well as numerous rebel commanders inside Syria.
The international discord is a reflection of the deep fragmentation of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian National Council (SNC), the anti-Assad forces’ de facto political representative, had long offered only timid, belated support for the armed rebels, but it has recently changed its tune and openly called for weapons. Most FSA units operate with little oversight and direction from the nominal military rebel leader, Col. Riad al-Asaad, and his officers, who are all sequestered in a refugee camp in southern Turkey that is off limits to journalists.
Still, the ire and resentment of many activists and fighters on the ground is directed primarily toward the so-called leaders of the opposition, all of whom are in exile. The depth of anger was perhaps best expressed in a short video in which a small group of men in civilian garb stand in two neat rows in front of an olive tree, scarves concealing their identities. The clip is not unlike countless others purporting to show members of the FSA, except that none of the nine men featured in it holds any weapons. Some carry lemons instead of grenades; others hold sticks as if they were rifles. One wields a hammer.
"In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate … We, the free men of Idlib, announce the formation of the ‘We Hope to Be Armed’ brigade," the speaker says. "We do not have any weapons. We ask the National Council and the commander of the Free Army to fulfill their lying promises and to stop serenading the revolutionaries on the ground without sending weapons, because your serenades are killing us."
Col. Ahmad Hijazi, the FSA’s chief of staff, says he can understand the resentment. "I don’t blame them," he says. "The people are angry and they are taking out their frustrations on us. But what can we do? They are asking us for more than what we can do. Governments must support the Free Army."
In the absence of such aid, Syria’s military defectors just wait. The camp housing the FSA officers looks just like the others Turkey has established for the thousands of civilians who have fled across its border — rows of white tents are neatly pitched along lanes of uneven loose white gravel. But unlike most of the others, the officers’ camp is isolated from nearby towns and villages. It’s in the middle of a lush agricultural plain in Apaydin, about 12 miles from Antakya, where verdant fields abut plowed, upturned earth, and snow-capped hills rim the horizon.
Turkish soldiers man the entrance of the camp, as they do in other refugee camps, checking the identity cards of anyone hoping to get in. Power outages are common here, cutting off Internet communications for hours on end. The FSA may claim to be operating a "command and control center" for the anti-Assad military effort from the camp, but it’s unclear whether they can control much of anything from a base with regular power cuts. Its critics, like the "We Hope to Be Armed Brigade," say it has offered little to the men fighting and dying inside Syria in its name. How do the FSA’s commanders account for their seeming lack of impact on the ground?
Hijazi shifts uncomfortably in his plastic chair inside one of the many identical tents in the officers’ camp. He doesn’t like the question. Nor does his fellow officer, Major Maher Nuami, who is seated on a single bed (the only one) in the tent. "It’s sensitive," Hijazi finally says. They won’t say if the FSA has sent emissaries to Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Libya — which recently pledged $100 million to the Syrian opposition — but insist that they have received no help on the ground from these states.
There are many reasons for Arab and Western reticence. Syria sits on just about every fault line running through the Middle East — it’s a multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic cauldron bordering similar tinderbox Arab states, as well as Israel.
The officers understand the geopolitical sensitivities and concerns about what may follow Assad, and have a few chilling predictions of their own. If the international community doesn’t arm them and provide logistical support, "everything" the world fears from the fall of Assad will come to pass, Nuami argues. "We know what they’re afraid of," he says, "they are worried about the Israeli border and a massacre of Alawites."
"The people will get weapons, one way or another, so help us," Nuami continues. "If you give us weapons, we can control them. We want the fall of the regime, not the fall of the state. If the international community helps us, we’ll help them. If it doesn’t, our people offer no guarantees."
Hijazi says the FSA is receiving donations — mainly from private citizens — and distributing them to officers in the field, but that it’s nowhere near enough. "It’s like you’re thirsty and we’re giving you a capful of water," he says. "What’s it going to do?"
The money is going to men like Captain Alaaeddine, commander of the Salaheddine al-Ayoubi Brigade, operating in the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour, which borders Turkey. The captain, a soft-spoken 30-year-old, defected almost a year ago, making his way home from the Syrian capital of Damascus, where he was based, to defend his friends and family. The FSA leadership recently gave him and three other officers from different units $22,000 to divide among themselves.
The money went part of the way toward a $90,000 order of weapons and ammunition a Turkish intermediary, "Mehmet," was trying to secure for the captain. Alaa would not reveal the source of the rest of the funds. "We have our ways," was all he would say. He also said that he didn’t know the origins of the weapons he was purchasing. It was by no means a done deal, even after weeks of negotiations involving several suppliers, but it was tantalizingly close.
On a cool evening in mid-March, Alaa, his deputy Sergeant Ahmad Mokbat, and Mehmet, a professional smuggler, gathered at a safe house in Antakya over a dinner of beans and rice to discuss last-minute details, before Mehmet set off on his mission. The two Syrian defectors had crossed the border days earlier to finalize the deal, the first of this magnitude that they had attempted. "We are like a well without water," Mokbat said sullenly as the men sat around a tablecloth spread out on the floor. "It’s tiring. It’s hard to see our men without ammunition. It’s very hard."
"There are always slingshots," Mehmet joked, a flat attempt to lighten the tension. His phone rang shortly after dinner. It was time for him to go. Mokbat pulled a fat wad of cash — the last of a down payment — out of the inner pocket of his black leather jacket, and a handgun out of the back of his pants. Mehmet took the money, but declined the gun.
"Imwafak Inshallah," Alaa said as Mehmet closed the door behind him. May you be successful, God willing.
The need for supplies was pressing. That morning, at 5 a.m., troops loyal to the Syrian regime had engaged Alaa’s men in the northern Syrian hamlet of Jannoudiye, his hometown, which is just north of Jisr al-Shughour and roughly six miles from the Turkish border. The captain said that he’d called the commanders of other larger rebel units nearby, in Idlib and Jabal al-Zawiya to "start something" and divert the security forces’ attention in a desperate bid to relieve pressure on his small band of poorly supplied men.
It hadn’t even slowed the loyalists down. Alaa spent most of the evening on the phone, receiving updates from his men. The news wasn’t good: By 9 p.m., the rebels had retreated and were perilously close to running out of ammunition. Civilians were being used by soldiers loyal to Assad as human shields, marched in front of tanks, he said (a finding corroborated by Human Rights Watch). Entire families, including some of the captain’s relatives, had fled into the hills, where they were spending a chilly night. "Jannoudiye has fallen," Alaa said, fingering his red prayer beads.
"Don’t lose hope brother," Mokbat said, but he too was becoming increasingly gloomy. Two calls to Mehmet went unanswered. "I don’t understand. Where are the mujahideen [holy warriors]? This surprises me a lot. Why are our Arab brothers, Christian and Muslim, still silent?" Mokbat asks.
According to the FSA officers, the claims of foreign fighters in Syria — eagerly touted by the Assad regime — are wildly overblown. A lone Libyan had reportedly volunteered to fight with their FSA unit recently, but left after a few days. "He said, ‘You guys are crazy, this is suicide, you don’t have weapons’," Mokbat said. "He was right. I wish the revolution would go back, it was better before. We used to shoot into the air, we didn’t worry about ammunition. Now we think twice about using each bullet."
Five hours later and Mehmet had yet to return. In fact, he would not come back until a week later — and empty handed. The problem was trying to secure a road to ferry the supplies without being intercepted by Turkish security. Although Turkey houses the FSA, it "does not allow any weapon to be transferred to Syria in [an] illegal way," a Turkish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. Anyone caught trying will be arrested and the weapons confiscated, he added.
Still, Mehmet was hopeful. "It’s dangerous," he told the defectors, "but God willing, the goods will move. Be patient."
"I’m sitting on fire over here!" the captain says. "We must be with our men!"
Some of his men, like Mazin, a 20-something defector with a wispy beard, weren’t in Jannoudiye anymore. Mazin said he walked through the hills for three days, helping guide families to the safety of the Turkish border. He was now in the officers’ camp, where his mother tended to him. "I thought he was injured when I saw him," his mother says, fussing over her youngest son who has stretched his bare swollen feet out in front of him. "He was limping and walking oddly." Still, Mazin is determined to go back into Syria, even without fresh ammunition. "We’ll plant bombs," he says. "We can’t just sit here."
That’s exactly what many Syrian refugees, defectors and civilian revolutionaries accuse the high-level defectors in the camp of doing — just sitting there. In the absence of an organized military effort, the burden of securing weapons and funding has fallen to lower-level officers like Alaa, as well as ordinary Syrians like Abdel-Salim, a taxi driver turned thuwar who commands the "Free Syrians," a ragtag bunch of farmers, taxi drivers and other civilians from a string of villages abutting the Turkish border. Abdel-Salim, a 40-year-old with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard and high cheekbones, had crossed the border into southern Turkey to try and secure supplies for his group: 3,000 bullets, to be precise.
The "Free Syrians" are under the FSA banner, he explains, and are in regular communication with its leadership via a few defectors in his group. "We ask the defectors to go to the officers’ camp to ask for help but we haven’t got anything from the Free Army yet," Abdel-Salim says. "But to be fair, I don’t think the Free Army has anything itself."
Many of his men, most of whom have secured their families in the Turkish refugee camps, don’t have weapons. Assad’s Syria was not a militarized society — unlike Iraq, for example — where gun ownership was common. "It’s OK," Abdel-Salim says. "Look at Gaza: They used stones against tanks, and if we have to, we will do the same."
Abdel-Salim recalls that he participated in peaceful protests for months, and only picked up a weapon four months ago, when he "lost hope" in protests. He was shot about a month before that, in his stomach and his right leg, and spent 10 days recuperating in a Turkish hospital. He walks with a limp, but that didn’t deter him from crossing back into Syria to fight Assad’s army. "I didn’t want to pick up a weapon," he says, "but I think Israel is more honorable than the Syrian regime."
The longer Abdel-Salim speaks, the angrier he gets. "Where is the money the Syrian opposition got from the Libyans?" he seethes. "We haven’t seen any of the [Syrian] National Council members down here. … What is Riad al-Assad doing in Turkey anyway? Army commander? He should cross the border, lift people’s morale. What is he scared of — dying?"
After three days in Turkey, Abdel-Salim is tired of waiting. He doesn’t have his bullets, but he also doesn’t leave empty-handed. Instead, he takes 20 Kalashnikovs with him, courtesy of Fouad, the rail-thin Syrian trying to negotiate an ammunitions sale with the Turkish dealer Abu Mohammad.
Abdel-Salim’s new guns, however, haven’t come from Turkey — they were secured inside Syria. "It took 10 days to get 20 Russians," Fouad says, referring to Kalashnikovs. The small amount didn’t even come from the same source, and all the guns had empty magazines. "I had to go to four or five villages to get these 20 Russians," Fouad says. In several dangerous dashes into Syria over the past few months, he says he’s secured "less than 50 weapons."
It’s hardly a way to win what has become a vastly asymmetrical war, but Fouad and others like him say they have few options. After weeks of waiting, Captain Alaa and his deputy were preparing to cross back into Syria, with or without their $90,000 order.
Fouad was also readying to reenter his homeland. Despite the danger of crossing what human rights organizations report is a freshly mined border, as well as the high probability of encountering loyalist troops, Fouad says there were also dangers lurking on the Turkish side. "We are having difficulty trusting people here, finding men we can trust," he says. "Most of the weapons dealers in these parts are Alawites."
And what about the Sunni Turkish dealer who promised to help? "He was full of talk," Fouad says. "Talk, talk, talk. That won’t do us any good. We need guns."