Wed, Oct 31, 2012 - Page 6 News List

Syrian rebels buy guns from enemy

THE LESSER EVIL?Rebel fighters say since the West will not arm them, they have no choice but to acquire weapons from the very regime they are trying to topple

AFP, ALEPPO, Syria

Free Syrian Army fighters sit atop a tank after defeating government troops at Salqin City near Idlib Province, Syria, on Monday.

Photo: Reuters

The Syrian regime may be their sworn enemy, but rebels fighting to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad say they pay hard cash to government agents for guns and bullets.

For Syria’s plethora of armed opposition groups, obtaining weapons is a constant struggle. Furious with the West for failing to provide heavy weaponry, they say they have little choice but to line al-Assad’s coffers.

In a country where national service is compulsory, and a conflict where brothers fight on opposing sides and rebels defect from the armed forces, they say it is not difficult to find a “middleman” or an “old friend” to help.

“We buy from al-Assad spies and on the market,” Major Abu Mahar said.

He claims to lead 200 men who conduct “special missions” against al-Assad’s forces. Yet like other units, they are poorly armed with machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades, sniper rifles and homemade rockets and bombs.

Seven Kalashnikovs hang upside down from hooks and a bucket of bullets sits in the corner of Abu Mahar’s office in a converted gym, which overlooks the mirror-lined workout room where bodybuilders used to flex their pecs.

Abu Mahar defected this summer from the air force. Like other rebels, he still has associates in various branches of the Syrian government military and security.

Abu Mahar says a bullet costs 110 Syrian pounds (US$1.60) to buy from the regime, compared with US$2 on the market.

He claims that most of his group’s ammunition supplies come from the shabiha, the term used to refer to state-sponsored militia.

“We buy them from double agents, they need the money. The shabiha’s God is money. They don’t care about anything else. If you give them money they’ll even sell you their own mother,” he said. “They have open access to army, police and intelligence bullet stores. They’re saving up for when the regime falls.”

However, Abu Mahar is evasive about where and how often the exchanges take place. He says his network uses a “pointman” or an “old friend,” and they do not meet face to face.

Rebels seem unperturbed about bankrolling their enemy, particularly when the West has declined to provide heavy weaponry and there is no prospect of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone that was so vital in toppling former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

“They’ve already taken our money for the last 40 years, our gold, our minds, what difference does it make?” said one member of the main rebel group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in northern Syria near the Turkish border.

For Yussef Abud, a commander in the FSA’s Tawhid Brigade, it is a matter of survival.

“What can I do? Sometimes I don’t have enough weapons or bullets. I don’t like it, but without these bullets and weapons, many FSA will be killed,” he told reporters.

Rebels also take guns from soldiers they kill on the battlefield, while others who defect from the regime often manage to smuggle their weapons out with them.

Sitting guard in an old sports complex on the Aleppo front line, Mohammed Abu Issam al-Halabi, 49, claims to have bought his Kalashnikov “from bad guys in the regime” for US$1,000 when he decided to become a mujahidin eight months ago.

“You can’t buy these on the market and I need a weapon. What can I do?” he said.

The former factory boss told reporters that before the uprising the gun would have cost only US$200 or US$300.

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