TRIPOLI: Rabih, a friendly and forthright man in his 50s, works in both agriculture and arms trading in north Lebanon, but he explains he does not care that his latter occupation contributes to the killing of human beings.
The arms dealer does not like to be photographed or placed on record, and Rabih is not his real name.
“Why do they cover their faces and go and take pictures of themselves?” Rabih asks of other arms traders who pose for photographs with scarves over their faces.
Passionately lifting his coffee cup, Rabih elaborates on how the nature of arms trading with Syria is changing as the 20-month-old conflict in Lebanon’s neighbor escalates and the style of warfare rapidly changes.
“The arms market has changed and so have the prices – they keep fluctuating,” says Rabih, who adds that arms trading is an old tradition in Lebanon since weapons are abandoned throughout the country.
“We used to sell Kalashnikov rifles for $100, but after the assassination of [former Prime Minister] Rafik Hariri the price went up and today it is around $1,200,” he discloses.
But Rabih says there is now good news for everyone who seeks to buy a machine gun for less. The prices of small weapons are going to significantly drop as a result of the abundance of such weapons in Syria and the rebels’ interest in more lethal, larger weapons, he explains.
Commenting on the relationship between Lebanon and Syria in this field, Rabih says Syrians have successfully bought weapons in Lebanon since the start of the uprising but sales have slowed as they turn to alternative sources such as Iraq.
Recently the Syrian rebels purchased 200 advanced sniper rifles from Iraq for $300,000, Rabih reveals.
In the past, Rabih says, the headquarters of the Syrian intelligence bureaus in Lebanon used to be the sources for arms. “I used to take part in filing reports on where and how to find arms and for what prices,” he says, but adds: “Today that equation has flipped. Syrian rebels are coming to the Lebanese to buy weapons.”
Rabih also says that the Palestinians are heavily involved in arms trading these days because they own a huge stock of Russian inventories. “These are what are demanded today,” he says. “I just sold a 14.5 mm anti-aircraft machine gun for $22,000.”
The 14.5 mm is an old Soviet-made machine gun that is available in many Palestinian refugee camps.
Rabih also says that Syrian rebels are in need of the expertise of some Palestinian fighters to be able to better use these larger-scale arms.
He adds that the Free Syrian Army has also been looking for “heat-seeking, battery powered missiles that they can install on their handmade carts.”
“Anti-aircraft machine guns are also greatly in demand as well as B29 and N29 1989-made Russian rocket-propelled grenades,” he says.
The demand for such weaponry explains why the prices of small arms have started to fall. The larger arms are found in Palestinian camps and their prices range from $20,000-$30,000.
“Recently, however,” Rabih adds, “the FSA has been seeking to buy the more expensive anti-tank missile Kornet to target the regime’s tanks, but these weapons are very expensive and very rare to find because only Hezbollah possesses them.”