Comrades in Arms

How Libya sends weapons to Syria's rebels.

As the United States prepares to send weapons to the Syrian opposition, former Libyan rebels are now going public with the news that they have been doing exactly that for the last year.

"Our Libyan revolution was very much supported by the international community," says a 43-year-old former rebel commander in Benghazi who is in charge of smuggling weapons from Libya to opposition forces in Syria. "But the revolution in Syria seems to have been abandoned by the world. So over a year ago we decided to help and send weapons."

Libyan rebels have long seen their Syrian counterparts as comrades in arms, fighting a similar struggle to rid themselves of a bloody dictator. It helps, of course, that President Bashar al-Assad maintained a close alliance with Muammar al-Qaddafi -- the deposed Libyan leader even broadcast his final messages from a Syrian-based station after he was ousted from Tripoli, the capital. Following Qaddafi's demise, some Libyan fighters traveled to Syria to support the armed uprising, but it may be through supplying weapons once used to topple their own dictator that Libyans make their greatest impact on the struggle against the Syrian regime.

A recent New York Times article confirmed the flow of weapons from Libya to Syria and noted that the effort was largely financed by Qatar. But while the article focused on shipments through the air, the supplies delivered by boat across the Mediterranean arguably constitute the more significant flow of weapons and goods.

The former rebel commander personally organized two shipments of weapons by sea from Benghazi to the Turkish port of Iskenderun this year. The weapons were then transported over land, with the knowledge of Turkish authorities, to rebel forces controlling northern Syria.

The two shipments each contained roughly 460 tons of goods -- mainly weapons, but also humanitarian items. One left Benghazi five months ago; the second one sailed in June. The shipments included vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars, ammunition, and -- most importantly -- 120 SAM-7 missiles, along with their launchers. These surface-to-air systems have been responsible for bringing downing several Syrian regime aircraft this year.

Another shipment by sea had been organized by revolutionaries in the Libyan capital over a year ago, but they made the mistake of attempting to transfer the aid to the Syrian rebels through Lebanon. "This ship and the cargo was confiscated by the Lebanese authorities, who generally are pro-Assad," says the former rebel commander. "After this failure, I started organizing weapon shipments to Syria from Benghazi via Turkey."

With the end of the war in Libya, the country has famously become the world's largest open-air arms market. The weapons used to topple Qaddafi have spread far and wide across the Middle East. Most famously, al Qaeda-linked extremists got their hands on weapons from Libya, using them to wrest large swaths of territory in Mali away from the central government. But the arms flow to Syria is arguably a case where the aims of the Libyan rebels coincide with those of Washington.

The former rebel commander, who also heads a Libyan NGO that helps Syrian refugees in Libya, says most of the weapons and aid are donated free of charge by fellow Libyans. But when the cost of transporting the weapons is high and Libyan funds run dry, he added, a Syrian member of the Muslim Brotherhood flies to Benghazi to provide an injection of cash and coordinate the flow of weapons into Syria.

"What we do is this," explains the organizer. "We ask katibas [rebel units] here in Benghazi to donate weapons and humanitarian stuff for Syria.… People just show up with guns, money, hospital beds, or sugar. So the moment we have enough we rent a ship or plane and get it to Syria via our contacts in Turkey and -- less often -- in Jordan."

Libyan rebels have also sent aid to the Syrian opposition by air. Twenty-seven such flights have occurred to date, says the former commander -- 23 from Libya to the Turkish city of Gaziantep and four to an airport in Jordan. The planes mostly took off from Benghazi, but also departed from Tripoli and the eastern airport of al-Abraq, close to the town of al-Bayda.

"Often these are rather small planes," the former commander says. "Either we Libyans pay, or some of our Syrian friends find money and pick up the bill."

The organizer of the flights said the last plane carrying Libyan weapons left for Gaziantep around late May. From there, the weapons were brought into rebel territory in northern Syria, which borders rebel-friendly Turkey.

The former rebel commander joined one of the shipments by sea to Turkey. Upon arrival, he visited rebel-held territory in Syria and helped the Syrian rebels in handing out the weapons. However, the lack of organization among the Syrian rebel forces was jarring -- even for a man who experienced the Libyan revolt.

"We try to distribute it equally among all the groups," he says, "but there is some rivalry. I have suggested to the Syrians to create one operation room in which all different rebel groups are present. This is also what we did during the Libyan revolution. But until now the Syrians have not followed this example."

The former commander is realistic enough to know that the Syrian rebels will not win the war because of the weapons from Libya. But he voices hope that the arms can help the Syrians better defend themselves, particularly if the Assad regime launches a much-anticipated assault on the northern city of Aleppo. "We know from our own experience with the Qaddafi regime how tough it is to fight against a dictator," he says.

The commander supports the U.S. decision to send military aid to the Syrian rebels, but laments how, until now, hardly any of those weapons have reached Syrian territory. "That's why we are organizing a third shipment with weapons for the Syrian revolution," he says. "A boat with 1,500 tons of weapons and humanitarian aid is currently docked in a Libyan port, ready to sail any moment to Turkey."

Photo credits Al Aan TV


Leading from Nowhere

Why is Washington being so quiet about the tumultuous upheaval in Egypt?

The ironies of the U.S. response to the situation in Egypt would be pretty entertaining if realities on the ground weren't quite so disturbing.

A year ago, who, other than those in the fever swamps of the Tea Party, would have thought that Egyptian street protesters would topple their first democratically elected president while accusing Barack Obama's administration of being too close to the Muslim Brotherhood? Who would have thought that on the Fourth of July, commentators across America would celebrate a military coup in Egypt as being synonymous with the actions of Washington's Founding Fathers? Who would have thought that the Wall Street Journal would suggest with a straight face that the real model for the Egyptian military should be the murderous regime of Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet?

Who would have thought that so many people could go to such lengths to describe the Egyptian military deposing a sitting president while deploying tanks in the street as something other than a coup? Who would have thought that David Brooks would respond to the fact that Egyptians have twice taken to the streets in waves of massive pro-democracy protests over the last two years as a sign that they "lack even the basic mental ingredients" for a democratic transition?

Egypt's interim government just took an important step in naming moderate economist Hazem el-Beblawi as prime minister and by setting a very brisk six-month timeline for elections, rewriting the Egyptian Constitution, and returning the country to civilian rule. From the body language, it seems pretty clear that the Egyptian military really doesn't want to be in the driver's seat for all this, but felt it had little choice but to act. That said, with the blood literally still on the streets from the killing of more than 50 Islamist protesters this week, it is equally clear that the choices for the Obama administration going forward are going to remain unpalatable.

The administration seems to largely agree with the Egyptian military and most of the street protesters that Mohamed Morsy had to go, but obviously cringed at the idea of a democratically elected president being deposed at gunpoint. President Obama said he was "deeply concerned" by the military's decision to seize power, but came well short of condemning the move.

Similarly, the administration thinks that cutting off aid to Egypt doesn't make much sense, even though U.S. law requires it in the case of military coups. (Pity White House spokesman Jay Carney being left to make the case that it is too early to tell whether it is a coup.)

Obama deserves credit for not publicly hyperventilating about the situation. Having the White House and State Department appear a bit distant is not the worst thing when dealing with a country that justifiably harbors pent-up resentment regarding a long history of U.S. meddling (and, yes, even billions of dollars in aid). Having Washington publicly take sides in a fluid, messy upheaval will not serve either capital well at this point.

But the choices will keep getting harder. Even if the administration wanted to, steering a democratic transition from afar is incredibly difficult. At the end of the day, there is no real substitute for a genuine Egyptian leadership that can cobble together a functioning coalition of parties and individuals willing to work together in the national interest. That is why Morsy's short tenure will ultimately be seen as such a tragically lost opportunity.

Washington wants the Egyptians to move quickly to re-establish functioning democracy, but speed is not always helpful when it comes to shaping a constitution that is genuinely inclusive or getting buy-in from moderate Islamist parties outraged by the killing of their supporters. Getting the Muslim Brotherhood back on board in a productive way will not happen overnight.

Egypt is in the middle of a historic, painful, difficult, and long-overdue political transition. All the parties involved need to allow time to reach some basic consensus. Indeed, the current situation in Afghanistan might have looked very different today if George W. Bush's administration had allowed time for a genuine national dialogue and reconciliation to take place rather than simply ramrodding through rapid elections and the anointment of President Hamid Karzai.

In many ways, this is going to be the hardest lesson for Washington to learn. Having treated the Middle East as the lone regional exception to its democracy-promotion efforts for decades, policymakers in Washington decided after the 9/11 attacks that democracy should be on the fast track in the Middle East -- or, that is to say, that it should be on a fast track where it is strategically expedient. Yet, it is exactly because this democratic dialogue was deferred for so long that these conversations to build consensus on everything from the role of religion in politics to youth unemployment will have to be given real time, as messy and problematic as that might be.

Unfortunately, though the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, and others are now stepping up to pour in billions of dollars of aid, and Beblawi, the new prime minister, appears a credible economic thinker, the economic pressure will only continue to mount as negotiations take place. Both tourists and foreign investment are going to stay away from Egypt until the situation calms considerably, and Egyptian leaders, regional allies, and the Obama administration will need to work quietly behind the scenes to make sure the economic situation can at least show some glimmer of promise to those in the streets.

Secretary of State John Kerry came into office hoping to secure sweeping diplomatic deals in the Middle East -- a worthy aspiration. But instead of grand diplomatic bargains, the hard work necessary to build a genuinely collective vision for Egypt's future needs to happen in the coffeehouses and ministries, in the mosques and government offices. Anyone who has ever been to a city council meeting knows those meetings aren't very sexy, but the hard truth is that you don't have democracy without building blocks. Given that Obama began his career as a community organizer, one hopes that the administration will finally embrace an approach to Egypt shaped from the ground up.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images