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August 10, 2012

Covert Smuggling Trail Arms Syrian Rebels

by Henry Ridgwell

ANTAKYA, Turkey — Some Western and Arab Gulf powers say they are increasing humanitarian and support aid to the Syrian opposition. At the Turkey-Syria border, the main conduit for foreign aid to rebel fighters, there are signs the aid trail also may include covert arms smuggling.

The Turkish city of Antakya is now a hub for Syrian rebels and their supporters.  Just 20 kilometers from the border, analysts say it's here that most of the deals are being forged to aid the Free Syria Army rebels.

But few people here will openly admit that foreign countries are arming the opposition.

Ahmad al-Kanatre Abu Hamza, commander of the Omar al-Mukhtar brigade of the FSA, told VOA last month that most of his fighters' weapons are taken from Syrian forces.  
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"Almost all our weapons are confiscated from the defeated regime army. We get no help from other countries," he said.  "All our arms are light weapons and they are old."

Opposition supporters have posted videos on social media sites allegedly showing big caches of weapons - mainly Kalashnikov rifles - and ammunition.  Their origin is unknown.

Foreign officials, including those in the U.S. and Britain, publicly say assistance to the Syrian opposition is limited to humanitarian and educational programs.

In unguarded moments, however, rebel fighters admit to receiving foreign arms.

Jonathan Eyal, an analyst at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said details are slowly emerging about international weapons' trails to the rebels.

"Very few countries admit to having a direct role although the veil of silence is slowly being lifted," he said. "The channels are Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the lead, with the Turkish government and the American government once-removed."

The covert nature of the trade - and the presence of Syrian government troops close to the border - limits the flow of weapons to rifles, pistols, and possibly a few rocket-propelled grenades, says former CIA intelligence analyst Bob Ayers.

"You wouldn't start from scratch.  And the intelligence organizations themselves whether they be American, British, Israeli, whatever, they would not be providing weapons to the FSA," Ayers said. "They'd go through a middleman, they'd find someone who has been trading across the border, who has got relationships on either side of the border, and funnel the weapons, the supplies, the munitions, the communications devices, whatever, through the middleman."

Ayers says a big problem is that foreign powers don't know exactly who they're giving the weapons to.

"We don't really have a unified opposition to [Syrian President] Assad," he said. "And there's no way that you can deal with them as if they are a unified entity.  They're fragmented, they are small groups, there's no centralized control although we'd like to see it and we behave like there is. There isn't."

The FSA's foreign supporters are attempting to tip the scales of the conflict towards the rebels in Syria while avoiding being caught red-handed, says analyst Eyal.

"It's a very difficult job to achieve especially since the involvement has to be once-removed," he said. "Let us not forget we do not have a U.N. Security Council mandate to do more than that, nor is any Western government proposing to become directly involved."  

Eyal says current support for the FSA is having minimal impact on Syria's civil war - and the outcome will ultimately be decided by the loyalty of the Syrian military to President Bashar al-Assad.