With smuggling choked, Syria rebels feel arms curb
BEIRUT – Mohamed Nizar says he and his fellow rebels have the will, the fervor and the money to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad.
What they lack, he says, is the firepower.
"If I make a phone call, I'll have maybe 2,000 Stingers," Nizar said, then acknowledged he could not get the shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles because the government is choking off all the main smuggling routes into Syria.
Small arms purchased on the black market are being smuggled in, but for all the international community's talk of helping the rebels to bring down Assad, no government is known to be arming them.
Libya's new rulers, fresh from their own revolution that toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, have pledged support for the Syrian rebels, but actually transferring weapons is tricky. Last month, Lebanese authorities seized a ship carrying rocket-propelled grenades and heavy-caliber ammunition, possibly bound for Syrian rebels.
The fighters' attempts to bring in heavier arms that could change the course of the 15-month-old uprising so far have been stymied at every turn, even by countries sympathetic to the revolt. All are wary of being drawn into the fight.
Any attempt by foreign governments to arm the rebels has been seen as a gamble because it could set the stage for a proxy war in an already volatile region. Such a scenario could entail Russia and Iran backing the Assad government, with the U.S. and its Arab and European allies supporting the rebels.
On the other hand, the lack of weaponry to resist a powerful crackdown by Assad's forces has broad implications for the revolt, and it could push rebels toward desperate tactics.
Already, Syria's rebels are shifting gears to smaller-scale guerrilla tactics like roadside bombs and hit-and-run attacks as the government chokes off the main smuggling routes.
AP interviews with security officials, rebels and arms dealers indicate that individual rebel units scrounge for weapons with almost no central organization or import routes for anything heavier than automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.
"An RPG is the biggest gun we have," said Nizar, who handles logistics and weapons procurement for the Free Syrian Army, the loose umbrella group for rebel factions. He said it receives no equipment from foreign governments and has not seen any American aid.
That contrasts sharply with the direction the conflict appeared to be taking earlier this year. Outraged by a bloody assault to crush the opposition in the city of Homs, Western and Arab governments spoke of supplying the rebels with cash. The Obama administration says it has started delivering a package of $12 million in communications, medical and other "non-lethal" assistance to the opposition, but there have been no obvious changes on the ground.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya have spoken positively of the idea of arming the Syrian rebels, but no country is known to be doing so now.
Speaking to the AP in Turkey, where he is based, Nizar said rebels have managed to seize some 30 armored vehicles including tanks and were using some of them, and that some rebels are trying to set up their own arms industry. He did not say what they are producing.
In April, Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Arab Gulf states promised to set up a multimillion-dollar fund designed to prop up Syria's rebels and entice defections from the army, but no money is known to have been distributed yet.
Nizar said money is not the issue — plenty pours in from Syrians in exile. He said the biggest need is for anti-tank and anti-helicopter weapons, including rockets.
The rebels have cast a wide net, contacting weapons dealers in Bulgaria, Greece, Georgia and Azerbaijan, he said. Libya has "opened the store" for Syrian rebels, eager to help fellow "revolutionaries" and, more important, to get rid of its destabilizing overstocks of weapons from last year's civil war, he said.
But the problem is transporting the weapons into Syria. Light arms used to flow relatively easily into Syria through small-scale smuggling networks. But Syria's neighbors all have good reasons to stay out of the fight, and are wary of openly arming the rebels. In recent weeks they appear to be clamping down on smuggling.
Nizar said Turkey's position is "live in our country and don't make problems." Jordan keeps even tighter control on FSA members on its soil. Syria's border with Israel is sealed, Iraq says it has deployed troops to curb smuggling across its border with Syria, and Lebanon is too divided to take any sort of unified stance on Syria. Russia, Syria's chief backer, has a naval base on the country's Mediterranean coast.
Lebanese authorities have been cracking down on weapons believed to be heading for Syria, particularly through the northern port city of Tripoli, where sympathy for the rebels is widespread.
On May 7, Lebanese authorities said they seized 60,000 rounds of ammunition hidden in a ship that arrived in Tripoli carrying used cars. Last month, they seized a ship headed to Tripoli carrying Libyan weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades and heavy caliber ammunition.
Abu Raed, 40, a former smuggler living in northern Lebanon near the border with Syria, said weapons flowed freely until Syria clamped down.
"There were many ways to smuggle weapons inside Syria, especially at the beginning when areas close to the northern border were free of army presence," he said.
Then the Syrian army mined the border and closed most of the smugglers' crossings, he said. "This has limited the work of smugglers noticeably."
Early in the uprising, rebels would hold ground and even entire neighborhoods or even towns where opposition sentiment was high. But lack of weapons and the government's overwhelming firepower forced a shift in tactics and rebels appear to have turned to roadside bombs, hit-and-run ambushes and assassinations.
Since late December, al-Qaida-style suicide bombings have become increasingly common, although the FSA denies having anything to do with those. Instead, they say, they target military vehicles and soldiers to chip away at the government.
"At least in recent weeks, you no longer have these big battles like one had in Homs," Jakob Kellenberger, president of International Committee of the Red Cross, told reporters on May 8 in Geneva.
"You have more guerrilla attacks and bomb attacks," he said.
Syrian army units have also stepped up their firepower. Some are using Russian-made 2S4 Tyulpan 240mm self-propelled mortars, the world's heaviest mortars, said Nic Jenzen-Jones, an Australia-based small arms consultant.
"Even assuming significant quantities of weapons end up in opposition hands, the regime might feel it has little reason to worry," the International Crisis Group said in a recent report. "In Libya, the massive NATO air campaign almost certainly did more to defeat (Moammar) Gadhafi's forces than whatever assistance was provided to rebel groups; even then, it took months to achieve victory."
AP writers Christopher Torchia in Istanbul, Stephen Braun in Washington, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.