Opening the Weapons Tap: Syria’s Rebels Await Fresh and Free Ammo

Allegations of large weapons consignments abound, and TIME tracks down two men believed to be main distributors to gauge the extent of the infusions — and the plight of the ragtag rebel bands desperate for help

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Fighters loyal to the Free Syrian Army pose with their weapons in a location on the outskirts of Idlib in northwestern Syria on June 18, 2012. Alleged distributors claim they are affiliated with neither the FSA or Muslim Brotherhood

It’s an open secret along the Turkey-Syria border. For weeks, Syrian rebel commanders from key units operating in northern Syria and further south have been waiting for a second major batch of new weapons to arrive at the border. The first large consignment was handed over more than two months ago and was distributed to select groups operating in and around Idlib, Hama, Homs and the outskirts of Damascus. Each area received several hundred rocket-propelled grenade launchers (with 10 grenades per launcher), Kalashnikov rifles, BKC machine guns and ammunition, according to several sources. There have also been two smaller deliveries since the initial consignment. “We weren’t asked what we needed,” says one rebel commander responsible for an area of northern Syria who had been promised supplies, “but we will take whatever we can get.”

In recent weeks, there have been reports, mainly citing Western diplomatic sources, that rebels were receiving weapons supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Almost as many stories — largely based on the testimony of some rebels — have denied this. Meanwhile, both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have reported that CIA officers are on the ground in southern Turkey, helping decide which Syrian opposition fighters receive the arms.

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Many of the new weapons are being funneled through a Lebanese intermediary, rebel groups say. The Lebanese politician, who opposes the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has set up an office in Istanbul, declined to be interviewed. He is the main tap, so to speak, while a handful of Syrians are the distributors. TIME tracked down a man believed to be the main distributor, a 31-year-old who says he commands some 1,500 rebels along the Syrian coast but is not part of the Free Syrian Army — the loosely organized network of military defectors and armed civilians — or any other group like the Muslim Brotherhood. He spoke on condition of complete anonymity and insisted that even his geographical area of operation be withheld from publication.

He was extremely reluctant to speak. He denied that the support was sponsored by foreign governments but admitted that “the weapons that entered recently all went through me.” He said he “distributed weapons to almost all of the provinces” but that “everything that went in was not more than 5,000 rifles, although there were a lot of bullets, 700,000 bullets.” He brushed off questions about new RPGs and denied receiving antitank missiles. “When the sun rises, everybody will see it,” he said.

TIME also found another alleged distributor, one of the four purported representatives of the rebellion in the capital, Damascus, and its outskirts. This man too said the distributors are neither FSA or Muslim Brotherhood. He did say the weapons are from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “It’s not what you think,” he said from Istanbul, where he has recently based himself after leaving Syria. “It was just small amounts. Bullets, rifles, RPGs, and not in huge numbers. We were promised weapons that could take on a tank, but we haven’t got them yet.”

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The Turks deny any part in arming the Syrian rebels. “Turkey doesn’t send armed elements or arms to any other neighboring country, including Syria,” a well-placed Turkish government official told TIME on condition of anonymity. “Nor do we allow any other country to send arms to one of our neighbors through Turkey. We reject that.” (Update: Once warm ties between Ankara and Damascus were further strained on June 22 as Syria admitted to and apologized for downing a Turkish military jet earlier in the day. The plane had reportedly been flying near Hatay along Turkey’s southern border with Syria. The two crew members survived, but it’s unclear if they are in Syrian or Turkish custody. The regime appears to be nervous about its skies. The day before, a Syrian pilot flew his Mig to Jordan and defected.)

In the past, Turkey has arrested armed Syrians caught trying to cross the border illegally and confiscated their weapons, but the 31-year-old Syrian arms distributor said Turkey’s “red light” on the border had recently turned green, a view shared by his Damascene counterpart. “The Turkish government is closing its eyes,” he said. The goods are ferried across the border on donkeys, as well as physically carried in by the rebels, he and others said. The recent large consignments of weapons are not only new, they are free — unlike the small amounts of second-hand goods (often bought from corrupt elements within the Syrian regime) scrounged by rebels and smugglers in the past, most often from inside Syria.

Those bullets — if you could get them — cost upwards of $4 each, and even then, many rebels complained that the ammunition was old, sometimes inactive stock. TIME reported back in February that some rebels were resorting to homemade improvised explosive devices, using “trial and error and looking some things up on the Internet,” in a bid to try to equalize a vastly asymmetrical battlefield in the absence of more conventional weapons and explosives. The Syrian regime is using heavy weaponry, tanks and helicopter gunships. Its Russian allies are maintaining the equipment and restocking supplies. The new weapons of the opposition won’t level the playing field, but as one Syrian opposition member along the border said, “now the Syrian army will be facing a real force.”

But the new consignment hasn’t yet arrived. Indeed, there is growing frustration along the border among rebel commanders who have been waiting weeks for shipments due “any day now,” “in the next few days,” “soon Inshallah.” That may be because, says the Damascene distributor, the main batches from the Gulf came with preconditions. “They are saying that there are weapons in depots here (in Turkey) but they won’t release them to us because we are not pledging allegiance to them. They want us to follow Saudi Arabia or a big organization like the Brotherhood. We are refusing this. That’s why the next batch of weapons has been delayed. Either we follow them, and get lots of weapons, or we don’t and die.”

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Still, there is much anticipation about this infusion of weaponry. Disparate Free Syrian Army units inside Syria have been trying to organize themselves in part in order to convince the international community that they are structured and more than a ragtag bunch of militiamen — and partly to appear serious enough to be given a share of the new armaments being carted into Syria. The bigger and higher-profile the armed group, the more likely it is to be on the list to receive weapons. Of course, political affiliations and religious leanings also play a role.

In the chaos of Syria, many interests and motives are involved in the battle against the regime. Some FSA units engage in crimes like summary executions of suspected Assad collaborators. There are small numbers of foreign fighters — Libyans, Tunisians, Iraqis and Lebanese. There are units that are solely made up of Salafis, adherents of a conservative strain of Sunni Islam. Al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra are a real presence in the many-headed battle against Assad, according to some rebel sources. The Damascene distributor said he and others were aware of the dangers, especially of what may happen after the common enemy, the regime, falls. “This is a priority,” he said, “controlling the weapons after the regime falls. We know the men on the street. We know that this man will return to his work, surrender his weapons to the new command, and that another will not. We know who we are giving weapons to.”

Toward that end, eight representatives of the relatively low-profile Martyrs of the Revolution Jundallah, an FSA unit that operates on the outskirts of Aleppo, made a quick overnight dash into southern Turkey this week, to leave their calling card, so to speak. “We are here looking for support — weapons, medicine, communications, anything,” said Abu Chaaban, a member of the Martyrs from the town of Dar Izzi. “We hear that there are arms, but this is just something we hear.”

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There were other sources of arms available to them, but those had clear strings attached. “Some of these arms being offered come with conditions,” Abu Chaaban told TIME. “We have to conduct the operations that they want us to, sit when they say so, move when they say so. We refuse that.” The “they” in these instances were the Muslim Brotherhood as well as a wealthy Libyan (introduced to the group by an Aleppan businessman) and a Saudi (via a fighter from the besieged northern Syrian city of Idlib).

The Martyrs group from Aleppo refused the arms-with-strings, its representatives said, but still desperately needs weapons and wants to remain loyal to the FSA and its purported leader, Colonel Riad al-As’aad, sequestered in a military camp in Apaydin, in southern Turkey. Abu Chaaban opened a Dell laptop and played four short snippets of video shot on a cellular phone. (The group is trying to secure several video cameras.) One was grainy footage of a nighttime clash; another showed rebels proudly celebrating in front of several tanks that were aflame. “We brought this video here because we have to show the leadership that we are a brigade, that we are organized, that this is what we can do.” The leadership, however, didn’t give them anything. “We saw Riad al-As’aad today, asked him for help,” said one of the eight men. “He threw up his hands and said he has nothing to offer.” The Martyrs are now looking elsewhere for help.

FSA chief As’aad has had no role in the new weapons deals, the Syrian rebel distributors independently told TIME, an account that meshed with testimony independently provided by other members of the opposition. If so, it is another blow to As’aad’s credibility. His star, never bright to begin with, has steadily waned as criticism mounted of his perceived disconnect from the men fighting and dying inside Syria in the FSA’s name. As’aad has dispersed cash to some units to purchase weapons, but money, it seems, can buy only so much loyalty.

As’aad still appears to be Turkey’s go-to guy in the FSA, and physical access to the colonel comes only with Turkish permission. It is a political conundrum: the rebels claim that the recent weapons shipments crossed the border with Turkey’s blessing even as Ankara denies it while denouncing the Damascus regime. To admit otherwise may be casus belli.

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While As’aad may be cut out of the new weapons transfers, that doesn’t mean other senior FSA defectors aren’t in on the deals. As’aad has often come under friendly fire from members of the opposition who have questioned his effectiveness and his contributions to the struggle against Assad. He has been publicly sidelined by the FSA’s military council in the embattled city of Homs. “Nobody has the right to issue press releases, take decisions or speak about operations in the Free Syrian Army’s name, except for the FSA command inside Syria,” the group’s spokesman, Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, said in a videotaped statement uploaded to YouTube last month. “From now on, all decisions will be taken from inside Syria … Anyone wishing to represent the Syrian people, the free army, or speak in its name, is invited to make their way to the battlefield, to Syria, and wait for the Syrian people to confer legitimacy upon them.”

Some senior FSA officers based in Apaydin have heeded that advice and headed back to Syria, albeit for short stints that some describe as photo-ops. Colonel Malik al-Kurdi, deputy commander of the FSA, told TIME that he recently returned from Haffeh, in the coastal Latakia province, scene of intense clashes earlier this month. (U.N. monitors who visited Haffeh days after the government wrenched back control of it reported a “strong stench of dead bodies.”) Kurdi says he was present during some of the fighting and that he bought food and medicine but not weapons. “The guys didn’t need light weapons. They needed more effective weapons,” Kurdi says, although he too denies reports of arms supplied to the rebels from foreign governments.

The increasingly open secret of arms transfers and the leaks about CIA involvement could well be part of some attempt to convince President Assad to cede some ground. After all, diplomatic initiatives like Kofi Annan’s plan are floundering. But it may come at a price by tarring members of the opposition as lackeys of the CIA or other meddlesome foreign powers.

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