ANTAKYA, Turkey — "Fouad," a rail-thin Syrian in tight jeans who looks at least a decade older than his 25 years, leans forward in a black faux leather armchair
in an unheated, sparsely furnished room in this southern Turkish city.
"I need ammunition," he
tells Abu Mohammad, a stocky Turkish weapons dealer sitting impossibly upright
on the stiff couch. "I'll pay five and a half." He quotes the price in Turkish
liras -- about $3 per bullet.
Abu Mohammad smirks. He
carefully places his white, half-moon Turkish coffee cup on the small square
table in front of him. "They're seven each," he says. "If you can get them for
five and a half, I'll buy them from you."
Fouad shakes his head,
takes another draw from his cigarette, and slowly capitulates on the price, but
not before complaining that a bullet cost three lira about a month ago. "Just
get them," he finally says. "And what about weapons? I heard there's a
stockpile of 4,000 bullets and lots of guns, but it's near an Alawite village
[in southern Turkey]."
Abu Mohammad confirms
the information, but says that it will be difficult to clandestinely buy any of
the Turkish military supplies, and harder still to discretely ferry them out of
the village, inhabited by Turkish co-religionists and assumed sympathizers of
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"You know, I don't want
anything from you," Abu Mohammad says. "I'm Sunni too, I just want to help."
It's Fouad's turn to smirk.
The Turkish dealer pulls
his phone out of his dark leather jacket and calls an associate called Qadir,
switching from Arabic to Turkish. After a few minutes, his phone is back in his
pocket. "I'll get you the goods," he tells Fouad. "But you know, this is a lot
"Don't worry, you'll be
paid for your trouble," Fouad says, turning to a gray-haired Syrian also in the
room. "These Turks," he says dismissively, "they talk a lot don't they? From
[Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan down, they talk, talk, talk, but so far,
it's only talk. God willing, this one is different."
Abu Mohammad brushes off
the slight. It's a seller's market, and professional smugglers like Fouad, a
civilian who supplies arms to some of the ragtag bands of Syrian rebels in the
Free Syrian Army (FSA) operating just across the border in the governorate of
Idlib, have few options. "It's like the black market has dried up," Fouad says
later, after the brief meeting. "Can you believe it? In the Middle East!"
It's a view widely shared
by defectors, arms dealers, and refugees alike here along the Turkish-Syrian
border. For months, Assad's opponents have been buying black-market weapons
from the countries bordering their volatile state -- from Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq
and Jordan -- as well as from within Syria, primarily from members of the
corrupt regime or military sympathizers who remain embedded with loyalists. But
it's getting harder. Money doesn't seem to be the main problem. Securing supplies
community has grappled for months with the issue of whether or not to arm the
Free Syrian Army, a loose band of defectors and civilian thuwar (revolutionaries).
Ahead of an April 1 meeting of the "Friends of Syria," a group of countries that
support the anti-Assad forces, Turkey and the United States agreed to establish
a framework for shipping non-lethal
aid to the rebels. But the provision of this aid -- much like the conversation
with the Turkish arms dealer -- has been more talk than action.
Nor have Assad's
staunchest enemies -- the Arab Gulf kingdoms -- opened their armories to the
rebels. In late February, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal raised
the FSA's hopes when he
said that arming Assad's opponents was "an excellent
idea." Yet, more than a month later, Saudi supplies have not made their way to
the front, according to the FSA leadership as well as numerous rebel commanders
discord is a reflection of the deep fragmentation of the Syrian opposition. The
Syrian National Council (SNC), the anti-Assad forces' de facto political
representative, had long offered only timid, belated support for the armed
rebels, but it has recently changed its tune and openly called for
weapons. Most FSA units operate with little oversight and direction from
the nominal military rebel leader, Col. Riad al-Asaad, and his officers, who
are all sequestered in a refugee camp in southern Turkey that is off limits to
Still, the ire and
resentment of many activists and fighters on the ground is directed primarily
toward the so-called leaders of the opposition, all of whom are in exile. The
depth of anger was perhaps best expressed in a short
video in which a small group of men in civilian garb
stand in two neat rows in front of an olive tree, scarves concealing their
identities. The clip is not unlike countless others purporting to show members
of the FSA, except that none of the nine men featured in it holds any weapons.
Some carry lemons instead of grenades; others hold sticks as if they were
rifles. One wields a hammer.
"In the name of
God, the merciful, the compassionate ... We, the free men of Idlib, announce
the formation of the 'We Hope to Be Armed' brigade," the speaker says.
"We do not have any weapons. We ask the National Council and the commander
of the Free Army to fulfill their lying promises and to stop serenading the
revolutionaries on the ground without sending weapons, because your serenades
are killing us."
Col. Ahmad Hijazi, the
FSA's chief of staff, says he can understand the resentment. "I don't blame
them," he says. "The people are angry and they are taking out their
frustrations on us. But what can we do? They are asking us for more than what
we can do. Governments must support the Free Army."
In the absence of such
aid, Syria's military defectors just wait. The camp housing the FSA officers
looks just like the others Turkey has established for the thousands of
civilians who have fled across its border -- rows of white tents are neatly
pitched along lanes of uneven loose white gravel. But unlike most of the
others, the officers' camp is isolated from nearby towns and villages. It's in
the middle of a lush agricultural plain in Apaydin, about 12 miles from
Antakya, where verdant fields abut plowed, upturned earth, and snow-capped
hills rim the horizon.
Turkish soldiers man the
entrance of the camp, as they do in other refugee camps, checking the identity
cards of anyone hoping to get in. Power outages are common here,
cutting off Internet communications for hours on end. The FSA may claim to be
operating a "command and control center" for the anti-Assad military effort
from the camp, but it's unclear whether they can control much of anything from
a base with regular power cuts. Its critics, like the "We Hope to Be Armed
Brigade," say it has offered little to the men fighting and dying inside Syria
in its name. How do the FSA's commanders account for their seeming lack of
impact on the ground?
uncomfortably in his plastic chair inside one of the many identical tents in
the officers' camp. He doesn't like the question. Nor does his fellow officer,
Major Maher Nuami, who is seated on a single bed (the only one) in the tent.
"It's sensitive," Hijazi finally says. They won't say if the FSA has sent
emissaries to Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Libya -- which recently
pledged $100 million to the
Syrian opposition -- but insist that they have received no help on the ground
from these states.
There are many reasons
for Arab and Western reticence. Syria sits on just about every fault line
running through the Middle East -- it's a multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic
cauldron bordering similar tinderbox Arab states, as well as Israel.
The officers understand
the geopolitical sensitivities and concerns about what may follow Assad, and
have a few chilling predictions of their own. If the international community
doesn't arm them and provide logistical support, "everything" the world fears
from the fall of Assad will come to pass, Nuami argues. "We know what they're afraid
of," he says, "they are worried about the Israeli border and a massacre of
"The people will get
weapons, one way or another, so help us," Nuami continues. "If you give us
weapons, we can control them. We want the fall of the regime, not the fall of
the state. If the international community helps us, we'll help them. If it
doesn't, our people offer no guarantees."
Hijazi says the FSA is
receiving donations -- mainly from private citizens -- and distributing them to
officers in the field, but that it's nowhere near enough. "It's like you're
thirsty and we're giving you a capful of water," he says. "What's it going to
The money is going to
men like Captain Alaaeddine, commander of the Salaheddine al-Ayoubi Brigade,
operating in the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour, which borders
Turkey. The captain, a soft-spoken 30-year-old, defected almost a year ago,
making his way home from the Syrian capital of Damascus, where he was based, to
defend his friends and family. The
FSA leadership recently gave him and three other officers from different units
$22,000 to divide among themselves.
The money went part of
the way toward a $90,000 order of weapons and ammunition a Turkish
intermediary, "Mehmet," was trying to secure for the captain. Alaa would not
reveal the source of the rest of the funds. "We have our ways," was all he
would say. He also said that he didn't know the origins of the weapons he was
purchasing. It was by no means a done deal, even after weeks of negotiations
involving several suppliers, but it was tantalizingly close.
On a cool evening in
mid-March, Alaa, his deputy Sergeant Ahmad Mokbat, and Mehmet, a professional
smuggler, gathered at a safe house in Antakya over a dinner of beans and rice
to discuss last-minute details, before Mehmet set off on his mission. The two
Syrian defectors had crossed the border days earlier to finalize the deal, the
first of this magnitude that they had attempted. "We are like a well without water,"
Mokbat said sullenly as the men sat around a tablecloth spread out on the
floor. "It's tiring. It's hard to see our men without ammunition. It's very
"There are always
slingshots," Mehmet joked, a flat attempt to lighten the tension. His phone
rang shortly after dinner. It was time for him to go. Mokbat pulled a fat wad
of cash -- the last of a down payment -- out of the inner pocket of his black
leather jacket, and a handgun out of the back of his pants. Mehmet took the
money, but declined the gun.
Alaa said as Mehmet closed the door behind him. May you be successful, God
The need for supplies
was pressing. That morning, at 5 a.m., troops loyal to the Syrian regime had
engaged Alaa's men in the northern Syrian hamlet of Jannoudiye, his hometown,
which is just north of Jisr al-Shughour and roughly six miles from the Turkish
border. The captain said that he'd called the commanders of other larger rebel
units nearby, in Idlib and Jabal al-Zawiya to "start something" and divert the
security forces' attention in a desperate bid to relieve pressure on his small
band of poorly supplied men.
It hadn't even slowed
the loyalists down. Alaa spent most of the evening on the phone, receiving
updates from his men. The news wasn't good: By 9 p.m., the rebels had retreated
and were perilously close to running out of ammunition. Civilians were being
used by soldiers loyal to Assad as human shields, marched in front of tanks, he
said (a finding corroborated by Human
Rights Watch). Entire families,
including some of the captain's relatives, had fled into the hills, where they
were spending a chilly night. "Jannoudiye has fallen," Alaa said, fingering his
red prayer beads.
"Don't lose hope
brother," Mokbat said, but he too was becoming increasingly gloomy. Two calls
to Mehmet went unanswered. "I don't understand. Where are the mujahideen [holy warriors]? This
surprises me a lot. Why are our Arab brothers, Christian and Muslim, still
silent?" Mokbat asks.
According to the FSA officers,
the claims of foreign fighters in Syria -- eagerly touted by the Assad regime --
are wildly overblown. A lone Libyan had reportedly volunteered to fight with
their FSA unit recently, but left after a few days. "He said, ‘You guys are
crazy, this is suicide, you don't have weapons'," Mokbat said. "He was right. I
wish the revolution would go back, it was better before. We used to shoot into
the air, we didn't worry about ammunition. Now we think twice about using each
Five hours later and
Mehmet had yet to return. In fact, he would not come back until a week later --
and empty handed. The problem was trying to secure a road to ferry the supplies
without being intercepted by Turkish security. Although Turkey houses the FSA,
it "does not allow any weapon to be transferred to Syria in [an] illegal way,"
a Turkish government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. Anyone
caught trying will be arrested and the weapons confiscated, he added.
Still, Mehmet was
hopeful. "It's dangerous," he told the defectors, "but God willing, the goods
will move. Be patient."
"I'm sitting on fire over here!" the captain says. "We must be
with our men!"
Some of his men, like
Mazin, a 20-something defector with a wispy beard, weren't in Jannoudiye
anymore. Mazin said he walked through the hills for three days, helping guide
families to the safety of the Turkish border. He was now in the officers' camp,
where his mother tended to him. "I thought he was injured when I saw him," his
mother says, fussing over her youngest son who has stretched his bare swollen
feet out in front of him. "He was limping and walking oddly." Still, Mazin is
determined to go back into Syria, even without fresh ammunition. "We'll plant
bombs," he says. "We can't just sit here."
That's exactly what many
Syrian refugees, defectors and civilian revolutionaries accuse the high-level
defectors in the camp of doing -- just sitting there. In the absence of an
organized military effort, the burden of securing weapons and funding has
fallen to lower-level officers like Alaa, as well as ordinary Syrians like
Abdel-Salim, a taxi driver turned thuwar who commands the
"Free Syrians," a ragtag bunch of farmers, taxi drivers and other civilians
from a string of villages abutting the Turkish border. Abdel-Salim, a
40-year-old with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard and high cheekbones, had crossed
the border into southern Turkey to try and secure supplies for his group: 3,000
bullets, to be precise.
The "Free Syrians" are
under the FSA banner, he explains, and are in regular communication with its
leadership via a few defectors in his group. "We ask the defectors to go to the
officers' camp to ask for help but we haven't got anything from the Free Army yet,"
Abdel-Salim says. "But to be fair, I don't think the Free Army has anything
Many of his men, most of
whom have secured their families in the Turkish refugee camps, don't have
weapons. Assad's Syria was not a militarized society -- unlike Iraq, for
example -- where gun ownership was common. "It's OK," Abdel-Salim says. "Look
at Gaza: They used stones against tanks, and if we have to, we will do the
Abdel-Salim recalls that
he participated in peaceful protests for months, and only picked up a weapon
four months ago, when he "lost hope" in protests. He was shot about a month
before that, in his stomach and his right leg, and spent 10 days recuperating
in a Turkish hospital. He walks with a limp, but that didn't deter him from
crossing back into Syria to fight Assad's army. "I didn't want to pick up a
weapon," he says, "but I think Israel is more honorable than the Syrian
The longer Abdel-Salim
speaks, the angrier he gets. "Where is the money the Syrian opposition got from
the Libyans?" he seethes. "We haven't seen any of the [Syrian] National Council
members down here. ... What is Riad al-Assad doing in Turkey anyway? Army
commander? He should cross the border, lift people's morale. What is he scared
of -- dying?"
After three days in
Turkey, Abdel-Salim is tired of waiting. He doesn't have his bullets, but he
also doesn't leave empty-handed. Instead, he takes 20 Kalashnikovs with him,
courtesy of Fouad, the rail-thin Syrian trying to negotiate an ammunitions sale
with the Turkish dealer Abu Mohammad.
Abdel-Salim's new guns,
however, haven't come from Turkey -- they were secured inside Syria. "It took
10 days to get 20 Russians," Fouad says, referring to Kalashnikovs. The small
amount didn't even come from the same source, and all the guns had empty
magazines. "I had to go to four or five villages to get these 20 Russians,"
Fouad says. In several dangerous dashes into Syria over the past few months, he
says he's secured "less than 50 weapons."
It's hardly a way to win
what has become a vastly asymmetrical war, but Fouad and others like him say
they have few options. After weeks of waiting, Captain Alaa and his deputy were
preparing to cross back into Syria, with or without their $90,000 order.
Fouad was also readying
to reenter his homeland. Despite the danger of crossing what human rights
organizations report is a freshly mined border, as well as the high probability of
encountering loyalist troops, Fouad says there were also dangers lurking on the
Turkish side. "We are having difficulty trusting people here, finding men we
can trust," he says. "Most of the weapons dealers in these parts are Alawites."
And what about the Sunni
Turkish dealer who promised to help? "He was full of talk," Fouad says. "Talk,
talk, talk. That won't do us any good. We need guns."