Arms to Syria: Theft, Entrapment, and Tampering

A gunman carries a gun as he sits behind sandbags at the neighborhood of Bab al-Tebbaneh in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, 23 August 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Omar Ibrahim)

By: Qassem Qassem

Published Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Huge quantities of weapons passing through smuggling networks in Lebanon indicate a major battle for Syria looming on the horizon, but even the arms market is rife with division as dealers sabotage merchandise and inform on customers.

Since the eruption of the Syrian crisis and the escalation of violence between Syrian government forces and rebels, arms prices in Lebanon have increased threefold.

The tag on an AK47 or a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) launcher recently reached $2,000, up from $700 to $1,000 before the crisis. PK machine guns and Dragunov sniper rifles were being sold at record prices of around $8,000.

Then, about ten days ago, the arms market in Lebanon witnessed a sudden recession. According to one arms dealer, “the Syrian market reached saturation.” Moreover, he says, “the rebels began selling their surplus arms and ammunition.”

The dealer says the price of an AK47 bullet dropped from $2 to $1.5 in one week. For RPG rockets, it fell from $500 to $300.

The sudden drop was also an indicator to Lebanese arms merchants that the rebels are now receiving supplies from other sources, probably Iraq and Turkey.

Despite this sudden “recession,” arms dealers are still working day and night so that their merchandise reaches its destination in Syria.

They do not seem to care about the informants watching them closely.

Although money is the main motivating factor, even arms merchants find themselves divided between the two warring sides of the Syrian conflict.

One dealer, who consider himself “politicized,” refuses to sell to anyone who would use the arms against “our people,” meaning, in this case, the Syrian army and regime supporters.

For this group, the real battle is between the US and Israel on one side, and the “axis of resistance” – Hezbollah, Syria and Iran – on the other. For them, the loss of a few dollars is a small price to pay.

If they wanted to make “a quick buck,” they might sell some malfunctioning weapons to the rebels.

One such merchant goes by the name Abu Mustafa. The young man sits in a coffee shop on the Hadi Nasrallah strip in Dahiyeh to meet with an Al-Akhbar reporter.

From afar, he blends in perfectly with the rest of the customers. No weapon is visible at his side, and, contrary to popular conceptions of people in his line of business, he has no visible scars or tattoos.

Abu Mustafa calls himself a “small” arms dealer, but he is actually a middle man, acting as an intermediary between the big-time merchants known as “whales” and the customers.

His outward appearance gives no clues as to the huge profits he makes off these deals – his clothes are plain, and he does not flash any symbols of luxury.

Although he is religiously observant, he admits he pretends to be unemployed but actually sells weapons. His unemployment is a good cover since “there is so much work these days,” he said sarcastically.

He knows that there are informants watching him. He is watching them back.

“Every officer has his price and we often coordinate together,” he says, unfazed.

Coordinating with Army Intelligence means he often informs on the people who purchase arms for transport to Syria.

He mentions an ambush he helped the authorities set for someone who wanted to buy 5,000 rounds of AK47 bullets. He waited for the customer on the airport road, arranging the deal over Whatsapp, the smartphone messenger service.

He told the customer a car with tinted windows would come to pick him up. The car was from Army Intelligence, and the man was promptly arrested.

In this particular case, the suspect claimed he was not intending to transport the ammunition to Syria, insisting that it was for personal use only. But his politics were at odds with those of Abu Mustafa, so the latter had no qualms about turning him over to the Army.

Arms dealers like Abu Mustafa, who see themselves as having a stake in the conflict, do not stop at informing on their customers (after they get paid, of course). They even go as far as sabotaging merchandise sent to Syrian rebels.

Most of the weapons “we knew were going to Syria, so we made sure to make it unusable,” one merchant claims. He went on to say that he and his associates have sold the Syrian opposition RPG rockets that are intended for training purposes only. This means they do not have the same explosive power as the regular ones.

“The rocket might explode and kill a person, but it will not inflict the same amount of damage on vehicles like the original,” he explains.

“They would not be able to differentiate the model from the original, unless they wanted to open each and every one, which they will not do, of course,” the merchant adds.

Some of the weapons they sold were just molded plaster painted green.

He also said that some merchants, including himself, are selling “rubbed out” AK47s.

“We smooth out the bores of the barrels for a few millimeters,” he said. “They are undetectable by the naked eye, but enough to affect the range of shot...The AK47 will fire as if it was spitting.”

The weapons they ruin are not the good supplies. They get them from the Lebanese army, which takes apart its damaged weapons and sells them as scrap.

“Most of the scrapped weapons are delivered to a junkyard in Shatila where we buy them and refurbish them,” the dealer added.

“Some weapons are found in good condition,” he went on. “When the army saws off its M16 rifles, we turn them into M4s and add some Chinese parts, so they look like new. The army would cut the barrel and save us some work and around $6.”

It should be noted that such weapons are useless in a real battle.


Open Bazaar

It is not just the merchants who are selling weapons.

Recently, a group of officers from a Palestinian armed faction stole weapons from their movement’s depot in Ain el-Helweh and Burj al-Shemali refugee camps and sold them to Syrian opposition fighters.

Some Lebanese merchants are also purchasing handguns in Turkey and importing them to Lebanon where they refurbish them with longer barrels and sell them as “toys.” Although they are for personal use, they are more powerful than regular handguns.

Ammunition is obtained mostly from officially licensed shooting ranges, including some that are run by security forces. The owners of these clubs are stealing ammunition supplies and selling them to the merchants.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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