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

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

“I’ll tell you,” the man from Ansar al-Din said, an hour and a half into the discussion. “How can you bring a former Baathi [member of Assad’s secular Baath Party] and a Salafi together? How can you bring an Ikhwani [Muslim Brother] and a communist together?”

“Bring them together in the fighting, not the thinking!” the Libyan said. “You practice your Salafism and kept it to yourself. Let a Christian, for example, practice his Christianity and keep it to himself, it’s nobody’s business.”

“This is superficial talk!” the Syrian retorted.

“No, it’s not. That means that unfortunately, you will not achieve your aims.” It was a point the Libyan from Zintan repeated several times throughout the night.

The Syrians listened as the Libyan recounted battlefield tales from his time as a field commander during the Libyan uprising, and as he offered advice, some of which they agreed with and said they were already implementing — like establishing command centers on every front, trying to absorb smaller battalions into larger coalitions and in doing so, soaking up their weapons and men and, in theory at least, bringing them into line under a larger command. Other suggestions however, like telling the men to shave their beards, fell flat. “Sometimes you need to do things that you may not want to do,” the Libyan said. “Don’t give them excuses. To the Americans, a beard means Islamist and terrorist.” The Syrians, all of whom were bearded, just looked at each other.

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“I am just giving you advice, from one brother to another,” the Libyan said, “but it’s your country — you know better. So what, in your opinion, is the solution? How can we help you reach it?”

“The problem,” the man from the Islamic Front said, “is we don’t have weapons. The solution is, give us weapons.”

“If your situation remains this [fragmented], you won’t get weapons. They [the international community] are scared that what happened in Libya will happen here. That weapons will spread, and then they won’t be able to gather them up, that militias will form and stay. They are afraid that after Bashar falls the revolutionaries will turn their attention to Israel and will shoot their planes out of the sky. That’s my understanding. What I don’t get is if they’re afraid for Israel, why send any weapons into Syria in the first place? Say you’re afraid for Israel and leave.”

“What have they given us anyway?” the commander from Ansar al-Din said.

“What is happening with us is that we have people outside [in exile] who are working on politics, who are not tied to us on the ground at all,” the man from the Islamic Front said. “Secondly, because they derive their legitimacy from overseas, they stay overseas. They are each tied to a particular country. So these people are obstacles because the international community until now is insisting on using them and a political solution. But to us, the solution is military and the people who are going to undertake it are the ones who are going to be important after the fall of the regime. That’s why, if the revolution is weakened militarily, there will be no solution, the fighting will continue on some level until one side or the other will be wiped out.”

The Libyan said he understood, but that the men “who go from hotel to hotel” in foreign capitals could be useful. During the uprising in Libya, he said, “we let them do that, and to deal with the international community and media. While on the ground, the fighting men used what we needed to end the battle — tanks, heat-seeking missiles, whatever.”

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“We don’t have those things, so what are we supposed to do?” the Syrian from the Islamic Front said. “We will face them with bare chests to bring down Assad. This is our only solution.”

“It’s coming. Help is coming, you just organize yourselves and it will come. We passed through this in Libya. I know what you are going through. We know the value of a bullet, especially when there aren’t any.”

It was perhaps a sentence too many for these Syrian rebels, who unlike the Libyans do not have the support of NATO planes to aid their fight. The man from the Islamic Front spoke first: “Look, they [the international community] all agreed and helped you out. We don’t have that.”

The man from Jund-Allah followed up: “The thing that helped you was that you had a liberated zone. They won’t even give us a no-fly zone so that we can have a similar area to organize. Bashar’s planes are always in the air. We can’t shoot them down.”

The Libyan was momentarily silent. “If you can suggest a way that our help can reach you, we have weapons, we have money, we have [Libyan] people fighting with you — not for some agenda, just your victory. Some of them are wounded. Just yesterday we visited them in hospital here,” he said.

“God bless you, thank you,” the man from the Islamic Front said.

“My brother, if we give you money, not weapons, would that help?” the Libyan suddenly said. All of the Syrians said that that would help, given that weapons can be purchased and smuggled from Iraq, as well as from within Syria, but that they also needed more advanced items like antitank and antiaircraft missiles, which were harder to obtain. “If you have money you can buy anything,” the commander from Ansar al-Din told his fellow Syrians, although they weren’t so sure.

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“Great,” the Libyan said. “There is a solution without having to beg the Turks [to let weapons pass across their territory into Syria]. Why trouble ourselves and pay transport or ask the Qataris? Don’t worry about the money, leave that to us. We don’t want to force anything on you the way the Qataris and others do, how they say, I supported you, you must obey my orders. No. But I am supporting you and just offering brotherly advice.”

Contact details were exchanged, as well as details about where the men fought, and the size of their groupings. The Libyans promised to be in touch, and that they would send their men into Syria to verify battalion numbers “not out of a lack of trust, but because we learned from earlier mistakes. Some people invent phantom brigades.” It was approaching midnight when the men dispersed.

The three Syrians weren’t the only ones trying to get their hands on Libyan weapons. Assad’s opponents from across the political spectrum of Islamism as well as more secular units have long sought to do so and have been successful to some degree.

A few nights after this meeting, in a private home in another neighborhood in Antakya, two non-Islamist commanders — one from Lattakia and another from Raqqa — were discussing the cost of transporting weaponry from Libya to Turkey. No more than $25,000 for a shipment, the commander from Lattakia said. The man from Raqqa had been quoted $65,000. “Leave it to me, brother,” the man from Lattakia said. “I’ll get the goods to you for cheaper. We’ve already used this guy for two shipments. His word is good.”

Syria’s various rebel groups may not be as united as some in the international community would like them to be, but at the moment they have common purpose — to bring down Assad, and to try and secure the weapons to do so. Libyan guns are a means to that end, but getting them across into Syria, especially the advanced antiaircraft systems, will also require a united decision from the international community. Which one will happen first, if at all? Rebel unity, or an international decision to robustly arm the opposition? In the meantime, the rebels are trying to do so on their own.

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