Lebanon News

Syria crisis amplifies black market arms demand

BEIRUT: As Abu Rida reels off a list of the latest prices for weapons and ammunition on Lebanon’s black market, his small audience lets out low whistles of surprise.“$2,000 for an RPG?” said one man, referring to a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

“I swear to God,” replied Abu Rida who has seen his profits skyrocket over the past year. “The prices are crazy. And it’s all going to Syria.”

Black market arms dealers like Abu Rida are struggling to cope with a soaring demand from Syria that has driven the prices of weapons and ammunition in Lebanon to record highs over the past 10 months. With the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad slowly evolving into an armed confrontation, procuring sufficient supplies of weapons and ammunition has become a key requirement of rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army, a military force composed of deserters from the regular army. Syrian opposition activists who previously supported a peaceful resistance of street protests now say they accept that weapons are necessary to help tip the balance against the Syrian security forces.

“We don’t need people. We have the people. We need weapons and ammunition. If we had that, I can assure you that Assad will be finished very quickly,” said Ahmad, a Syrian activist who lives in hiding in north Lebanon.

The shortage of arms and ammunition in Syria, the high prices in Lebanon and the limited scale of smuggling across the borders Syria shares with its five neighbors underlines the hesitancy of external powers to intervene more heavily by offering clandestine military support to the opposition.

The Arab world for now is limiting its involvement to the Arab League observer mission which is monitoring Syria’s compliance with a deal signed last month to end the crackdown. The international community has slapped sanctions on the Assad regime and mulled the option of establishing “humanitarian corridors,” but so far has shown a reluctance to play a more direct role. Syria’s neighbors fret at the possibility of the country sliding into a protracted civil war if the opposition shifts more fully from peaceful protests into armed resistance.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged Sunday a delegation from the Syrian National Council, the leading opposition body, to maintain “peaceful means” in pursuing its resistance against the Assad regime.

The prices of black market weapons in Lebanon have climbed steadily since mid-March when the uprising began, but arms dealers say there has been a further jump lately in the prices of certain armaments.

“There’s a big demand right now for RPG launchers, hand grenades and ammunition,” Abu Rida said.

The price of a good quality Russian AK-47 assault rifle has almost doubled in the past 10 months from around $1,100 to $2,100. An RPG launcher costs $2,000 today compared to just $900 last March and a single grenade is priced at $500, five times the price of a year ago.

“The market is so strong that ordinary people are selling their rifles to make a quick profit,” Abu Rida said.

The physical difficulties in smuggling weapons into Syria also helps keep prices buoyant. Syria shares borders with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon, all of them – barring the frontier with Israel – relatively porous and traditionally susceptible to smuggling. The border with Iraq, in particular, stretches across 600 kilometers of mainly stony desert. The Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, has generally sided with the Assad regime. But the Sunni inhabitants of Iraq’s Anbar province in the west adjacent to the Syria border share historic family and tribal ties with the Sunnis of western Syria and sympathize with the Syrian opposition. It is unclear whether arms are being dispatched into Syria from Iraq, but given the remoteness of the border, Iraqi security forces would face great difficulty in blocking such activities should they occur.

Syria has tightened its security measures along its southern border with Jordan with land mines reportedly planted along some stretches of the frontier. Many Jordanians support the uprising against the Assad regime and King Abdullah II has recommended that the Syrian leader should step down. But the amount of arms smuggled into Syria from Jordan is thought to be minimal.

Turkey, the most vocal critic of all Syria’s neighbors, hosts some 7,000 Syrian refugees as well as the leadership of the Free Syrian Army. Some weapons reportedly are being smuggled into Syria from Turkey, but the amount appears to be limited and the Turkish government has attempted to block illegal cross border traffic.

“We thought the Turks would help us,” said Ahmad, the activist. “There are no weapons being smuggled in from Iraq. I wish there were. We need them.”

The main conduit for arms smuggling from Lebanon occurs in north Lebanon. But Syrian troops have laced much of the border here with land mines, set up small military outposts and mount regular foot patrols. The smuggling appears to be ad hoc and on an individual basis by people looking to make a quick profit rather than a more organized transfer of weapons by political groups supporting the Syrian opposition. Last week, the Syrian authorities announced that a consignment of weapons had been seized close to the Lebanese border. The weapons included a light machine gun, rifles, ammunition and 14 RPG launchers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 10, 2012, on page 2.




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