WADI KHALED/JABAL AKROUM, Lebanon: A weapons smuggler stands by the edge of Jabal Akroum in Akkar, along Lebanon’s northern border with Syria, watching events unfold across the divide.
Sometimes he hears the roar of bombs, at other times the staccato of bullets. He points his index finger to where the unruly sounds emanate from and explains the geography of the area surrounding the fighting in the Syrian border town of Tal Kalakh.
The Syrian town is made up of mostly Sunni neighborhoods, in which some Alawite families also live. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime forces as well as those loyal to the opposition share power throughout the town.
All smuggling roads lead to the Homs province village of Qalaat al-Hosn, the furthest point in Syria that can be seen from Lebanon. The village is under the control of the opposition, says the smuggler, who goes by Ghassan.
“That is where the weapons and fighters must go,” he adds. He sits down on a ledge to rest before explaining how the smuggling routes operate in the northern border.
Ghassan, like all smugglers, is suspicious of journalists.
“You all look like security agents or as though your relations with security agents are good,” he tells The Daily Star sarcastically.
Prior to agreeing to the interview, Ghassan had asked The Daily Star to leave behind all identifying possessions, including cameras, recorders and, of course, smartphones.
Like all those who live by the border, Ghassan has adapted to a simple way of life that is often mired with hardship and cruelty. This is the norm for most of Akkar’s residents, who depend on smuggling to get by.
Before the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011, smugglers would export electrical equipment, fuel and medication to Syria, and had become accustomed to a life defined by their illicit trade. Today, however, smuggled goods flow to Syria from Lebanon and include everything, notably weapons and fighters.
The influx of fighters from north Lebanon to Qalaat al-Hosn is no longer news, though the numbers vary. Most have used the Jabal Akroum and Wadi Khaled routes to cross the border, entering where the geography is flat and Lebanese villages abut Syrian ones. When one moves closer to the Dabbabiet al-Zara crossing, things become more difficult for smugglers due to the Alawite villages on both sides.
Ghassan explains that the smugglers’ routes have altered somewhat since the battles in Qusair and the siege in Syrian areas bordering Arsal and Hermel in the Bekaa Valley region.
“The main line for smuggling used to be Arsal, but this has stopped in the last few weeks because of security operations and the surveillance carried out by the [Lebanese] Army,” he says.
On the northern border, smugglers have resorted to using small vans for transporting heavier goods. Operations in the north were relatively low in number when routes from Arsal were accessible.
Ghassan relates smuggling operations to the waves of the sea: They fluctuate in intensity according to the dynamics on the ground in Syria. As smuggling goods from Arsal became more difficult, operatives had to shift their sights toward northern border areas of Lebanon.
Concerning the networks and how they function, Ghassan said that in the beginning when the borders were established, residents of villages straddling them naturally turned to smuggling to make a livelihood and gained more experience as time passed.
“With the beginning of the Syrian crisis, fighting groups would ask for all types of ammunition and weapons, including light weaponry and even hunting rifles. But today, the circumstances have changed, and those who undertake risky operations can be counted on one hand. They are divided between Jabal Akroum and Wadi Khaled, including the villages scattered in between,” he says.
Nowadays, light and medium weapons are readily available, and smugglers are finding new routes to transport them.
Groups have also managed to seize many weapon storage units from the Syrian army, which has significantly affected smuggling activities, he adds.
Regarding the types of weapons being smuggled, Ghassan says groups fighting with the opposition request “all kinds” and buy them without even asking about the price. “But today, requests are limited and difficult. ... At one point, they asked for B7 and RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] 7D launchers, which hit targets more accurately and which are used to strike armored vehicles.”
But the most significant weapons being requested are B29 launchers.
“The opposition fighters have been trying very hard to gain access to [B29 launchers] as ... this type is unavailable in Lebanon, save for Hezbollah-affiliated groups, and here I am drawing attention to the fact that we used to obtain some special weapons from Hezbollah’s allies in the north. But we could not provide these [to the opposition],” he says.
It is important to note the complex organization of smuggling operations: Syrian groups request certain items from individuals who are able to secure goods and who have gained their trust. These suppliers then look into ways to transport the items into Syria. The operation does not end upon merely crossing the border, but includes transporting the goods to a designated checkpoint within Syria. The rates the smugglers charge increase in proportion to the distance the delivery point is from the border.
To curb smuggling operations, the Syrian army regularly switches out its battalions along the borders to ensure that its officers don’t fall prey to bribery, the primary means by which such operations succeed, according to sources knowledgeable about smuggling in the area.
Most of the smugglers could not be interviewed directly by The Daily Star, but some information was made available. The most significant of which was that explosives are now being brought across the northern border region, which has already been occurring in Arsal. Syrian weapons traders, who once crossed the border into Lebanon in order to transfer weapons, have been completely absent as of late, as orders for simple machine guns have been replaced by orders for advanced rocket launchers.
Conversely, security measures have forced a number of smuggling operations to halt, the most notable example of this being the ambush in Tal Kalakh that led to the killing of 17 young fighters from Lebanon. Smuggling operations have become more complex as a result, as many fear traps set up by the Syrian army.
According to smugglers’ accounts, Lebanon’s northern border has recently witnessed an increased movement of goods from Syria into Lebanon, after the Syrian regime allegedly gave instructions to Alawite villages of Akkar to transfer weapons, such as Kalashnikovs and PKCs, from Tartous and Safita into Lebanon. These arms have been used in the clashes between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh in Tripoli.
The smugglers confirmed that these operations garnered attention and led the authorities to make arrests in the towns of Abboudieh and Al-Hissa, along the border, as the weapons being brought into Lebanon were considered more dangerous than those smuggled into Syria because they have been used against Bab al-Tabbaneh residents.