China’s New Vassal
How the War in Ukraine Turned Moscow Into Beijing’s Junior Partner
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.
Dressed in his unit’s irregular uniform of black-and-gray camouflage cargo pants, a black T-shirt, and a baseball cap (which he wore backwards), Khatab explained that his unit relies on donations from the Syrian diaspora and wealthy businessmen in Aleppo to fund its activities. He had about ten million Syrian pounds (around $150,000) to spend, which would go toward his specially ordered anti-aircraft machine guns as well as additional Kalishnikovs and BKCs. He was also buying ammunition to restock his unit’s depot, which he said never dips below 25,000 bullets for each type of gun. “I’m here every two or three days,” he said. “That’s how long this ammunition will last if the army attacks us, or if we are going to try and retake an area.”
Khatab said he would rather make the dangerous trek to Idlib than approach his local opposition military council for a handout. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in coordination with Turkish intelligence operatives, began covertly providing light weapons to the FSA. These weapons tend to bypass the nominal leaders of the FSA -- Colonel Riad al-Asaad (not to be confused with the Syrian president) and General Mustafa al-Sheikh, who, until recently, were based in Turkey -- and are instead directly funneled to ten or so regional councils, each representing rebel units that operate within a province. But the handouts are considered meager and insufficient, and the method of distribution has been plagued by accusations of favoritism and double-dealing since its inception.
“The problem is that the supporters aren’t giving goods to the right people,” Khatab said of the Saudi-Qatari effort. His Abu Omara brigade had not received any of the free weapons, he said, but would not have accepted them even if they had been offered because they came with a condition that he and his men were not prepared to meet. “If you don’t pledge your loyalty to the military council, you get nothing from it, and with all due respect, we started this revolution so that we wouldn’t have to make pledges of loyalty like this to anyone.”
Units that receive the Saudi-Qatari weapons must also find other suppliers to fill out their inventory. Whereas Khatab’s unit relies solely on purchasing matériel, other Syrian rebel groups are resorting to more homespun methods. Abu Hussein, who heads the Martyr Mazin rocket brigade in the northern Syrian city of Jabal al-Zawiya, also refuses to pledge allegiance to anyone except his men. He buys some of the weaponry he needs on the black market, but his unit also manufactures its own rockets.
“We’ve made about 150 of these,” Abu Hussein said as he propped up his product, the Freedom 1, in the courtyard outside his home. Its design takes cues from the Qassam rocket that Hamas has engineered. The cylindrical metal object stands roughly three feet and nine inches high, about two inches wide, and is comprised of three parts -- the body (stacked with potassium and sugar), the explosive head (which weighs about 4.4 pounds, mainly aluminum nitrates), and a detonator. It has a range of nearly 7.5 miles, he said, and has been used in Homs, Talbiseh, and Hama.
Abu Hussein coordinates with groups in Hama that are also manufacturing homemade rockets, comparing notes and making adjustments, but he has not reached out to the military councils. “I haven’t asked for help, because I won’t give them allegiance,” he said. “The Muslim Brotherhood approached me, I also refused.” Although the Syrian rebels lack the direct foreign military assistance that Assad’s regime receives -- mainly from Russia -- they have managed to tap into a variety of sources for procuring arms and money. Senior defectors such as Asaad and Sheikh are not involved in the Saudi-Qatari effort, but they have their own means of funding (largely provided by Syrians in the diaspora and from wealthy Arabs in the Gulf) and are setting up individual patronage networks, distributing money to select groups of FSA units.
The problem for Asaad and Sheikh, who remain rivals despite the fact that they formed a joint military council in March, is that they have to confront the growing authority of the military councils, which look derisively at the deal-making, tea-sipping officers who are ensconced in the safety of Turkish and Jordanian territories. They already face the wrath of men such as Colonel Afif Suleiman, the head of the Idlib Military Council, which consists of some 16 units from across the province. Asaad and Sheikh’s leadership “became a question of, ‘Will you follow me so that I extend you support?’” Suleiman explained. “They took money that was given to the free army and distributed it like this. This is our conflict with them.”
Suleiman’s complaints underscore the deep internal divisions of the Syrian opposition. From the earliest days of the revolt, attempts to bring unity to the rebel factions have foundered. A recent effort by a Jordan-based general, Mohamed al-Haj Ali, to unite the disparate rebel brigades under his leadership and a new name -- the Syrian National Army -- seems to have fizzled. Moreover, the loose band of secular and Islamist rebels operating under the FSA banner is not the only armed player in Syria. There are also separate Islamist groups, including the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham, which reportedly receives the bulk of its support from Kuwait.
“Those sitting in Turkey and elsewhere are just watching and thinking about what position they will occupy after the revolution,” Khatab said. “Some people came to us, our brigade, and talked to us about how they want our support after the fall of the regime,” he added. “They want it secured now.”
Despite distrust and disorder, the rebels’ guns are still more or less pointed in the same direction. Should Assad fall, however, and that common target disappear, those guns could very well be turned against each other. It seems increasingly likely that the battle for Syria will continue long after Assad has left the scene.