Foreign Policy: Undergunned And Overwhelmed

Apr 2, 2012
Originally published on April 2, 2012 7:32 am

Rania Abouzeid is a Middle East correspondent for TIME magazine.

"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 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."

Continued At Foreign Policy

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