Rocket-Propelled Syria

How the Weapons Trade is Fracturing the Opposition

On a recent Monday, Khatab, a 28-year-old former factory worker, sipped bitter coffee, leaned against an unpainted wall of a small house in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, and explained that he was in no rush. His special order of two 14.5-millimeter anti-aircraft guns was not slated to arrive until much later in the day.

A veritable arsenal of weapons surrounded him: heavy machine guns, sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikovs, and boxes upon boxes of ammunition. In the middle of the room sat the master of the operation, a silver-haired Syrian named Abu Sohaib, who had smuggled this shipment of weapons across the border from Iraq.

Men from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) stalked about, deciding which firepower was worth their money. A young, bearded man with gelled hair examined several BKC machine guns but walked out empty-handed. Maybe it was their price tags (each ranged from $5,000 to $6,000); perhaps they were poor quality. He was too polite to say. But Abu Sohaib did not try to stop him, mainly because he did not need to: there were plenty of other buyers. “Demand has increased a lot,” Abu Sohaib said, “especially since Aleppo rose. It’s increased about 50 percent.” To his point, he sold his entire inventory in a matter of days.

Weapons traders are doing a brisk business in Syria. Desperate rebel groups are constantly on the hunt for matériel to keep up the battle against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Yet as the war grinds on -- some estimates list the death toll as high as 30,000, and the United Nations reports as many as 1.5 million displaced people -- the booming weapons trade is aggravating rifts within the armed opposition. Rival FSA commanders are leveraging access to suppliers to exert influence and buy allegiances. And the patronage networks forged in the process could set Syria up for a bloody round of infighting, even after the battle for Damascus is settled.

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