Arming Syria’s Rebellion: How Libyan Weapons and Know-How Reach Anti-Assad Fighters

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ABDALGHNE KAROOF / REUTERS

A Free Syrian Army sniper takes position in a damaged house in Idlib on May 18, 2013

The beefy Libyan revolutionary field commander turned politician rose from the beige couch to greet his new Syrian guest, who pulled up a chair to join the two other Syrian men seated in a semicircle around the couch in the café of a hotel in the southern Turkish city of Antakya, near the Syrian border.

The Libyan had traveled from Zintan, in northwest Libya, while a fellow countryman, a former militia commander from Benghazi, had traveled from that port city to hold court in this Turkish hotel and meet some of the rebels trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. (Both Libyans requested anonymity, because of the nature of their mission.)

The Syrians seated around the Libyans on this warm night in mid-May were all from Islamist military units that operate outside the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which claims to represent most of Syria’s rebels. The night before, the Libyans said, had been the turn of the FSA, which is generally less Islamist than the rebels now seated at the hotel: the Libyans had met a colonel in the FSA who had sat on the same beige couch. He had defected relatively early in the now more than two-year conflict, and had nominally held a senior position in the coterie of exiled FSA officers in southern Turkey who at one point claimed to speak for the armed opposition but who have since been sidelined by other, newer defectors.

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It’s a common sight to see clumps of Arab men, mainly Syrian but sometimes speaking in other Arabic dialects or accents, huddled in meetings or milling about in certain Turkish hotels not only in Antakya but also in other border cities adjacent to crossings into Syria. The meetings usually don’t start until at least the late afternoon, or more commonly in the evening, and can continue well into the early hours of the morning. Some of the men are making deals to buy or sell weapons and ammunition, or are trying to secure financing to do so by meeting with wealthy financial patrons — either Syrian or foreign — who want to contribute to the war without joining the front lines. And then there are the foreign fighters, the men with the long beards and the short pants worn above the ankle in the manner of the Prophet Muhammad, who are waiting for Syrian rebels to take them into Syria.

The reason for this night’s meeting, and indeed for the Libyans’ 10-day trip to southern Turkey and across the border into northern Syria, was to help the Libyans figure out how to get some of Libya’s vast and loose stockpiles of machine guns, artillery, ammunition and antiaircraft systems — leftovers amassed largely by snatching government stockpiles during their own successful military uprising against their late dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and from supplies donated to the Libyan rebels by the oil-rich Gulf nation of Qatar — to Assad’s opponents.

The transfer of Libyan arms to Syrian rebels — and to other countries in the region — was documented in a U.N. Security Council report published in April. The report, by the U.N. Security Council’s Group of Experts, described shipments from various places in Libya and suggested that some local officials, or their representatives, were either involved in the shipments or allowed them to happen. An arms embargo, which is still in place, was imposed on Libya at the start of the uprising in 2011 that overthrew Gaddafi. Former commanders, like the two men at the meeting in Antakya, are sympathetic to the Syrian rebels in their bid to oust Assad and are helping them by steering weapons through Turkey and, according to the U.N. report, through northern Lebanon. In some cases, the Libyans foot the bill for either the weapons or their transportation or both; in others, the Syrians may pay for some of the weapons or their shipping. Turkey has long denied that its territory is used for such purposes. The meeting at the hotel in Antakya, to which TIME was given access on the condition that no one present be identified, provided a rare insight into the distribution of the weapons described in the U.N. report.

(MORE: The Shadow War Behind Syria’s Rebellion: Foreign Backers Jockey for Influence in Turkey)

The meeting was also about forging direct contacts between the Libyans and Syrians, and bypassing Qatar. In the past, the Libyans said, the Qataris have acted as “deliverymen” for five planeloads of weaponry the Libyans claim they sent via Turkey since last summer, but the Libyans claimed the Qataris and Turks had been removing the heavy weaponry they had sent. TIME could not confirm the men’s claims about either the shipments or the Qatari or Turkish involvement. One of the Syrian commanders present at the meeting in Antakya said that he had received a share of the Libyan weapons delivered since last summer. “We sent heavy weapons, including heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles, 12.7-mm antiaircraft guns, 14.5s (antiaircraft guns), Kornets (Russian antitank missiles),” the Libyan from Benghazi said. “We know that advanced weapons left from Tripoli and Benghazi, arrived in Turkey and were supposed to get to Syria. They didn’t.”

The rebels have long pleaded for heavy weaponry, but the international community has grappled with their demand, with many countries wary of sending advanced weapons into a chaotic battlefield without firm guarantees that they won’t find their way into hands of elements considered undesirable to the West (mainly ultraconservative Islamists), or be used in terrorist attacks, either inside Syria or across its borders.

Still, there has been some movement on the issue. The European Union said on Monday that it would not renew its arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, freeing member states to decide their own policy about arming the rebels. Still, it’s unlikely that E.U. weapons will be inside Syria any time soon. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who along with his French counterpart was pushing to lift the ban, said that Britain had “no plans to send arms at the moment,” according to press reports. The rebels are hoping — but not waiting — for those E.U. guns. In the meantime, they are looking a little closer to home, to their Arab brothers in Libya, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm and fund them.

“We now have a large batch of weapons ready to be shipped out from Benghazi,” the Libyan from Zintan said, “but we are not going to ship it until we can be sure that it will arrive, and that all of it will arrive.”

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The Syrian men who sat radially around the beige couch in the Turkish hotel were keen to get their hands on some of that batch of weapons. But first, the Libyans wanted to know who the Syrians were exactly and which rebel group each represented. There was a representative from Jund-Allah (Soldiers of God), which operates in and around the capital Damascus; a commander from Ansar al-din (Supporters of the Faith) in Lattakia province; and most significantly a man who is one of the seven members of the political office of Jabhat Syria il-Islamiya (the Syrian Islamic Front), one of the country’s largest, most cohesive and strongest Islamist militant coalitions, led by the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham Brigades. (The extremist al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra is not part of this alliance.)

Coffee was ordered — Turkish coffee for the Syrians and cappuccinos for the Libyans. The Libyan from Zintan, wearing faded black jeans, a cream-colored shirt stretched taut across his waist and a gray sports jacket, did most of the talking. He fingered black worry beads, while his colleague from Benghazi listened. His first question was about whether the men around him recognized the FSA and its 14 provincial military councils. All said they did not. “Their commanders are failures, they are corrupt,” the Syrian from Ansar al-Din said.

“There is not even one battalion, in all honesty, that they can control,” the Islamic Front representative said. “These people [senior defectors in the FSA like the one the Libyans had met the night before] were placed as facades, in the beginning, as media personalities, but as real commanders on the ground? Not at all.”

The Libyan’s next question was one he would repeat or refer to 16 times over the next two and a half hours: “Why aren’t you united?” And every time, the Syrians would politely respond that their Islamist battalions were better organized and disciplined and had a clearer chain of command than their more-secular FSA counterparts, but that asking for greater unity than that was a difficult proposition.

As the night unfurled, the Libyan clearly grew frustrated with their answers to this question, as did the Syrians to his repetitive query. “Brothers, strength is in your unity,” the Libyan said. “Just tell me why you aren’t united! Tell me what is the obstacle? What is it?!”

MORE: Syria’s Rebels Aren’t Winning the War: Anatomy of a Battle

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17 comments
Nathaniel
Nathaniel

It is interesting that Rania Abouzeid only reports from rebel held territory with rebels giving opposition perspective. Why there is no report from Syrian government held areas or from government supporters? Why nothing from Syrian Army? Is it because she was denied visa by the Syrian government?

azmalhome
azmalhome

http://azmalhome.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/islamic-terrorism/

Nowadays Muslims are struggling for Islam, but they’re not going to follow the Quran and Prophet Mohammed about most of decision, they’re fighting following own theory that has several way for them opportunity after termination the war. 

Quran 58; 5. Indeed, those who oppose Allah and His Messenger are abasedas those before them were abased. And We have certainly sentdown verses of clear evidence. And for the disbelievers is a humiliating punishment.

Quran 73:8-9. And remember the name of your Lord and devote yourself to Him with [complete] devotion. [He is] the Lord of the East and the West; there is no deity except Him, so take Him as Disposer of [your] affairs………..

Quran 2:190-193 Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed, Allah does not like transgressors. And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah/ mischiefis worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al-haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers. And if they cease, then indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful. Fight them until there is no [more] fitnahand [until] religion

[i.e., worship] is [acknowledged to be] for Allah. But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression [i.e., assault] except against the oppressors……

Quran 2:218 Indeed, those who have believed and those who have emigrated

and fought in the cause of Allah those expect the mercy of

Allah. And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful……..

Quran 2:244 fight in the cause of Allah and know that Allah is Hearing and Knowing.

4:59. O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result.

Add violence article

Quran 4:97 Indeed, those whom the angels take [in death] while wronging themselves185 [the angels] will say, "In what [condition] were you?" They will say, "We were oppressed in the land." They [the angels] will say, "Was not the earth of Allah spacious [enough] for you to emigrate therein?" For those, their refuge is Hell and evil it is as a destination.

Quran 4: 100. And whoever emigrates for the cause of Allah will find on the earth many [alternative] locations and abundance. And whoever leaves his home as an emigrant to Allah and His Messenger and then death overtakes him his reward has already become incumbent upon Allah. And Allah is ever Forgiving and Merciful.

Quran 4:168-169 Indeed, those who disbelieve and commit wrong [or injustice] never will Allah forgive them, nor will He guide them to apath, Except the path of Hell; they will abide therein forever. And that, for Allah, is [always] easy.

ucheharpers
ucheharpers

by the time this war is over these same guns would be used for terror...

ChaulRyu
ChaulRyu

This civil war began from a peaceful protest by the people of Syria, out of their desire for civil rights and greater voice in their government and to bring an end to corruption within the government, this is the desire of the people of Syria. And although, at the moment, the radical Islamic militant groups have the spot light during the time of war and chaos, but radicalism and extremism will always be a minority in any given society (and they will always exist), that is just statistical truth. But in the end, when the war ends and the dust settles, the moderate majority will prevail, thats just statistical probability, the law of nature. At present, the people of Syria are in a war to over throw a dictator and when the war ends they will not replace a dictator for another dictator (religious extremism), thats just highly unlikely. 

RezaTavakolian
RezaTavakolian

At the time of the so called Tunisia revolution the world had no idea that all these event in Tunisia and later in Libya and Yemen, and Syria and the rest of Arab and Islamic world is connected and orchestrated from out side of this small north African nation and is a part of much bigger Zionists / Neo-Con ( JESUS FOR JEW ) plan to dominate the Middle East and Africa and eventually the world. ((NEW WORLD ORDER)). Zionists that already controlled the U.S. government and U.S. House and Senate and most European government and their legislative with corruption and bribery eyed on the rest of the world starting with Middle east and Africa and specially oil and gas rich north Africa. Zionists used two main oil and gas rich dictator and their bank account to finance their master plan. Zionists Used the stolen Qatari and Saudi Arabian people's money that Zionist bankers holding in their banks to finance their plan. Zionists and their Fake Christian allies highjacked the Sunni sect of interpretation of Islam. It is known in the west as Salafi/ Jihadi/ Wahhabi / Al-Qaeda sect movement. Zionists used the Salafi ideology to dominate and control the Tunisian government. Qatari and Saudi then with the help of Turkish government trained over 20'000 Arab speaking solder of fortune (( TERRORISTS)) and invaded Libya. At that time Qatar transported around 18'000 ton of military gears to Benghazi in Libya. They quickly with the support of NATO and helping hand from U.S. military and C.I.A. arranged a U.N security council resolution and overrun the Qaddafi army and executed Qaddafi himself. Then they set up a Salafi Islamist government in Libya and assassinated their own people that coordinated their operation and have full knowledge of their plan in Benghazi to cover their track. Zionist terror force Then invaded Syria from Turkey and northern Lebanon with 20'000 now battle tested Salafi terrorists. And that was exactly two years ago. But at that time the Syrian government and the Syrian allies such as the Iranian , the Russian and Chines discovered the Zionist plan and from the beginning helped the Syrian government and blocked the U.N security council resolution and consequently prevented the repeating of the Libyan scenario. Even though the innocent Syrian people payed the price and the Syrian infrastructure destroyed in the process by the Salafi terrorists but they failed to establish another Salafi government in Syria. But Zionists were able to replace the government of Egypt with a Salafi Islamist government headed by Morse Brotherhood. The transition in Egypt was relatively easy like in Tunisia because the previous regime in Tunisia and Egypt were western backed regime and Zionists replaced them rather quickly. At the moment the Salafi/ Jihadi/ Wahhabi are in control of the government of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt and trying hard to replace the Syrian government. If they succeed in Syria then they are going to try to replace the government of U.A.E. and then Jordan and Yemen and Iran. At the end even Saudi regime itself because Saudi are Wahhabi not Salafi. But do not forget the ultimate goal of all these regime change in the Middle East and north Africa is.
to divide the oil and gas rich nations to smaller and more manageable state.

In 1982 the Hebrew language magazine called KIVUNIM ( DIRECTION) The official organ of the Zionist world organization, published an important article ,, THE STRATEGY FOR ISRAEL IN THE NINETEEN EIGHTIES,, The plan is based on the division of the whole area into small states and the dissolution of all the existing Arab state. The aim is to make an imperial Israel into a world power. NOW YOU KNOW THE REST OF THE STORY.

Adam_Smith
Adam_Smith

That "Islamist battalions were better organized and disciplined and had a clearer chain of command than their more secular FSA counterparts" has probably been true all along because Islamist rebels share the desire to overthrow Assad but have the added motivation of religious zealotry. This is why I believe that there was never a time in which Western support for more moderate or secular Syrian rebels would have led to a more moderate or secular successor government. Secularism in particular is associated with the Baathist Assad regime making it unlikely to survive the revolution. The most likely result by far of the fall of the Assad regime is a Taliban-like Islamist state, (after fighting among the rebels settles out), and Western support for the rebels does nothing but help that outcome to arrive sooner.

As for Israel, it won't admit to it openly but it supports the rebels because it views Iran as a greater threat than an Islamist Syria, (which it thinks will be militarily weak), and thinks Iran's power and influence will be greatly reduced by the fall of its Ally Assad. The Sunni Arab states support the rebellion for very similar reasons.

eternal10r
eternal10r

@ucheharpers .. uh guns are used only for terror.. besides.. rebel.. terrorist.. whats in a name? for all is the same. ;)

YetYetty
YetYetty

@ChaulRyu 

Reforms were proposed and voted upon, early on.   The so called opposition refused to participate instead un -democratically insisting ' Assad should go'.  This is no revolution but one fueled by the West to dominate people and for whom they have scant regard.  Look back to history and understand these same can never be trusted.  All's the pity that people think they can. 

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

@ChaulRyu " the moderate majority " has never prevailed in Syria, regardless of the statistical law. Democracy is untested proposition in this hapless country, that can't return to its long forgotten glory without getting rid of the culture of aggression, within and without the homeland.

R-U-SERIOUS
R-U-SERIOUS

@ChaulRyu Really? On what Planet do you reside? The Islamic Extremist have taken over the Egyptian Government, the same is happening in Libya. Syria will turn into an anti West, anti Israel government as soon as the Assad government is ousted. THAT, my friend is the reality. 

gmason69
gmason69

Hilarious! This may actually be the stupidest thing I've ever seen on the internet. You've set a very high bar that may never be surpassed. Congrats.

R-U-SERIOUS
R-U-SERIOUS

@RezaTavakolian MY God, what a Moronic rant. Get a life pal, you are a disturbed person who needs therapy. I feel sorry for you. May God grant you wisdom.

RezaTavakolian
RezaTavakolian

I totally agree with your comment, However you are wrong on one thing , president Assad going to stay in power because of total support  from Iran, Iraq, Russia, China and Hezbollah and the most importantly the support  from the people of Syria that finally see the results of foreign invasion designed by their arch enemy IsraHell.

Shinichi_Kuroda
Shinichi_Kuroda

@Adam_Smith This is just strange, the Syrian population is probably the most secular in the Arab world. If the muslim brotherhood barely made it in Egypt how would taliban style government make it in Syria? 

ChaulRyu
ChaulRyu

@R-U-SERIOUS @ChaulRyu I don't care if Syria becomes anti-west or anti-Israel or anti-particles, as long as it has a constitution that protects the civil rights of its people, and the government created by the people and for the people of Syria. And Mr. R-U-Serous, its time for you to wake up from your paranoid delusions. lol.  

sridhar.sid
sridhar.sid

The attention span of the West is usually 12 months! Hence, the people in Syria will have to deal with the aftermath and irrespective of International Groupings, the new borders will be drawn along Shia/Sunni lines. Iraq is a clear example