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

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.

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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?!”

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“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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