Opposition receiving arms through Syria’s neighbors


Clans and tribes are organizing smuggling routes in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

Syrian National Council members in Saudi Arabia are coordinating with tribes along the borders of Syria to smuggle weapons to the Free Syrian Army. The Al-Fawarha, Bani Khaled and Al-Turki clans just inside the Lebanese border are particularly active, playing a key role in supplying arms, SNC members say.

Syrian National Council member Muhammad Mazeed Al-Tarkawi, who is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, told the Saudi-based Arab News recently that several tribes are ferrying weapons to Syria on roads through Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Al-Tarkawi also said that the Al-Rafayah and Horan tribes in Jordan are also funneling arms to Syria from Jordan. From Iraq, the Al-Hasaka and Al-Raqqa clans are providing support, but no weapons.

The estimate of the number of people who have been killed in the 16 months of violence in Syria is nearing 18,000 and the conflict has been designated a civil war by the International Committee for the Red Cross. A Syrian expatriate living in Jeddah and involved in the SNC’s activities said the council is working with the tribes. He spoke on the condition that he remain anonymous.

“There is coordination among the various clans on the Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia borders to deliver thousands of rounds of ammunition, sniper rifles and anti-armor missiles,” he told The Media Line. “About 20 percent of all the weapons going to Syria are coming from tribes.”

Delivery across the border is further arranged by covert US personnel in Turkey with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood acting as a go-between and financing coming from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Although some Saudi private citizens provide financing, the Saudi government has taken no official position in arming rebels despite its support of the Free Syrian Army’s campaign to overthrow the Bashar Assad regime. The government sees Assad’s close relationship to Iran a threat to Saudi Arabia’s interests. The Saudi press almost daily denounces Assad as a tyrant and murderer.

But Saudi Arabia does not want to get involved in the weapons export business and prefers diplomatic channels to aid rebels. The government often pressures its clerics to suspend fund-raising drives to arm opposition forces because Saudi leaders fear money will be diverted to al-Qaida operatives inside Syria.

However, the smuggling operations follow a request from Saudi King Abdullah in March for Jordan to open its borders to permit the shipment of weapons into Syria. King Abdullah had promised economic assistance in exchange for Jordan’s cooperation. Saudi Arabia already provides a generous aid package to Jordan. In 2011, it gave the country nearly $1.5 billion to ease its budget deficit.

Tribe members have reported that security along the Jordan-Syria border still remains tight, making deliveries to opposition forces difficult, said the SNC official in Saudi Arabia. In addition, the flow of arms from Turkey have slowed considerably as border security tightened since Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet in June, he said.

Saudi Arabia is home to an estimated 400,000 Syrian expatriates who work as engineers, physicians and mostly mid-level managers in private companies. Nearly half of the Syrian expat community lives in Jeddah, and about 30 are members of the SNC. The SNC is said to represent most of the Syrian expatriate community.

Syrian expats sending aid to the Free Syrian Army have operated inside Saudi Arabia with relative impunity. “We haven’t seen anything from the Syrian citizens here that requires special attention from us in terms of investigating their activities involving the trouble in Syria,” said a Saudi Ministry of Interior official, who spoke to The Media Line on the condition his name not be published.

In addition to coordinating efforts to send weapons home, Syrian expats have established bazaars in several Jeddah neighborhoods, including Old Jeddah, to raise money to send food and medical supplies to towns and villages hit by violence.

Mohamad Ramadan, 31, a Syrian living in Jeddah, said only a small fraction of the Syrians in Saudi Arabia support Assad. “I’d say maybe 3 percent of the Syrians living here are for that crazy man. But that is enough to make us stay away from the Syrian consulate. We just can’t trust them.”

But Yalda, 27, a Syrian living in Jeddah and who described herself as an Assad loyalist, said the percentage of pro-government supporters are probably higher, but they keep a low profile to avoid reprisals from Free Syrian Army sympathizers.

“The people against our government are portrayed as heroes, but did anyone stop to think where those weapons go to?” Yalda said. “Except for the SNC, the opposition is not identified. Those weapons are going to gangsters and terrorists. They are not going to help free anybody.”

Originally published on 17/07/2012

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