Lebanon-Syria Border: A Weapons Market Boom

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Syrian rebels man a checkpoint in the al-Hamidiya district of the central Syrian city of Homs, 160 kms north of the capital Damascus, on 3 May 2012. (Photo: AFP - Joseph Eid)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Saturday, May 5, 2012

An arms shipment seized last week in Lebanese waters raised questions about the weapons supply routes into Syria. The porous northern Lebanese borders seem to contain some of these alleged routes.

“Kalashnikovs will not topple the regime. We need missiles.”

These words were spoken by a commander in the armed Syrian opposition some weeks ago during an interview with Al-Akhbar. Many of his fellow fighters shared his conviction at the time that the light and medium weapons they possessed were proving ineffective. The insurgents were sustaining heavy casualties and their strongholds had been besieged by the better armed and equipped Syrian military. Their guns were only effective in direct firefights, which had become a rarity in the “war” underway in Syria.

That prompted a search not only for superior weapons capable of making a difference on the ground, but also for a whole new overall combat strategy.

This has since been reflected in the black market for arms in Lebanon. Lebanese and Syrian insurgent leaders and middlemen in northern Lebanon assert that demand has shifted from light arms to medium and heavier weapons.

It was also underlined by the Lebanese army’s interception last week of an arms-laden ship in territorial waters off the northern Lebanese coast. Its cargo was valued at US$60 million, but many questions remain unanswered about the nature of the apprehend weapons, and whether there had been previous shipments of its kind.

One Islamist leader active in smuggling arms from Lebanon to Syria told Al-Akhbar that the weapons consignment was destined for Homs via a Lebanese intermediary, and was seized as the result of an undercover operation by Lebanese and Syrian intelligence. He declined to say where it originated.

According to reliable Syrian opposition sources, three similar shipments had been successfully delivered to Syria via Lebanon before last week’s seizure. The sources said these had included “Stinger” shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles, which have infrared guidance systems and a range of 5-8km. They added that these were being acquired with the aim of developing an air-defense system against low-flying planes and helicopters.

This may help explain the earlier revelation by a military official in Libya’s National Transitional Council that about 5,000 anti-aircraft missiles have disappeared from the country’s arms depots. Libya has become well-known as a major arms-buyers’ market since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime.

The same sources said that the value of the captured consignment, and of the three previous cargoes shipped in the same way, was well below the US$60 million figure claimed. It was not going to be offloaded at Tripoli port as reported, but somewhere on the Akkar coast further north, they said.

The sources also insisted that the arms had been paid for up-front, and were not “donated” as claimed by Syrian officials. They conceded, however, that some arms sold on to opposition fighters by unscrupulous individuals who “exploit the revolution” may originally have been supplied for free by various countries.

A Syrian rebel commander asserted to Al-Akhbar that a decision had been made to acquire anti-armor missiles by all means and routes possible, and that the fighters have already acquired Cobra anti-tank and Sam-7 surface-to-air missiles.

He said these were smuggled into the country overland, “for example, arms shipments enter via the border with Turkey under international cover, and are moved from there to Idlib.” He maintained that there was a tacit agreement between the Turkish authorities and the Syrian National Council for Turkish intelligence to turn a blind eye to the transfer of arms into Syria. He said weapons were also brought in via Jordanian territory, and also from Iraq via the Boukamal route. He noted that light arms are cheaper in Iraq, about half the cost compared to the Lebanese market.

This drive to obtain weapons capable of altering the military odds was accompanied by a change in policy toward the despatch of foreign fighters to Syria – one that puts quality before quantity. This resulted in the withdrawal of a large number of Lebanese and Arab volunteers who had gone to Syria to take part in the fighting, the vast majority of whom had no serious combat experience. In parallel, a number of explosives specialists affiliated to hard-line Islamist groups made their way to the country. They included the Lebanese Abd al-Jawhar, who was reported on April 20 to have been killed while making a bomb (see below).

Some of the militant groups in Syria have begun focusing their efforts on car-bombings and “martyrdom operations” directed against military and security centers, and in some cases civilian government installations too. The sources revealed that the perpetrator of one recent suicide bombing was a Libyan.

Al-Akhbar learned from Islamist sources that five individuals with extensive experience handling explosives recently left a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon for Syria, and that more people with similar expertise are being sought.

At least 10 Lebanese fighters are known to have been killed during the clashes in Syria (Al-Akhbar withholds publication of their names). The body of the latest to have died, whose first name was Khaled, was brought back into Lebanon and buried discreetly in Ersal in the northern Bekaa.

Meanwhile, efforts are being made to coordinate the activities of the various armed groups in Syria by establishing a Unified Military Council. According to the same sources, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been negotiating with the various factions in the hope of persuading them to join such a body. The FSA command has told them that they would retain freedom of operation in their respective areas, and promised that the council would not interfere with their activities on the ground, but merely liaise between them and act as an umbrella organization.

Dead or Alive?

Was Abd al-Ghani Jawhar killed or not? The truth remains a mystery.

On April 20, rumors began circulating about the death of the “explosives genius.” Given that he tops Lebanese and Syrian intelligence’s most-wanted lists, a media clamor quickly resulted.

Syrian opposition sources initially denied the news. But then they proceeded to confirm it, categorically, adding that Jawhar made a fatal mistake while booby-trapping a vehicle, causing a blast which killed him and a companion.

But the Lebanese security authorities are unconvinced. Security sources cite several reasons why the story about his death may not be true.

For one thing, the photograph of Jawhar that was published on the leaflet announcing his death was the same one the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces had circulated about three years ago. “Jihadi” groups usually keep their own archive of recent photos of members, which they publish after each “mujahed” dies.

Moreover, the security forces’ informers in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp affirm that no ceremonies were held there to receive condolences or celebrate the “martyrdom” of Jawhar, as would have been expected.

The suspicion is that the announcement of Jawhar’s death was a ruse to get the security forces off his trail.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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