Middle East
11:11 am
Tue March 6, 2012

Syria's Rebels Ask, Why Aren't The Weapons Coming?

In a nondescript apartment room in Turkey, just across the border from Syria, clouds of cigarette smoke drift toward the ceiling as Syrian opposition activists ponder how to keep people and supplies moving across the border.

Abu Jafaar is the alias of a Syrian smuggler who has been dodging Syrian army patrols for the past several months.

He says the smugglers are still getting back and forth, but the Syrian army has begun occupying entire villages to block their path. They have to be very careful when villagers rise up and protest, because that attracts the security forces.

Syrian civilians fleeing the army's assault on rebel-held neighborhoods are also crossing the border, into Turkey and Lebanon, with tales of horrific damage and brutal killings.

Opposition fighters say despite some talk about arming the rebels, there have been few imported weapons reaching rebel hands. Activists complain that the stage is being set for more bloodshed while the world watches.

Only Piecemeal Smuggling

In Arab and Western capitals, the talk has been of a largely nonviolent uprising turning into an armed insurgency. Washington accuses Iran of supporting the Syrian regime's crackdown, while Syria claims that the Saudis, Americans and Israelis are already covertly arming the rebels, or "armed gangs," as they are called by the Syrian leadership.

For Ayham al-Kurdi, an officer in the rebel's Free Syrian Army, this debate might as well be taking place on another planet. He has heard of mysterious arms deliveries from Qatar or Saudi Arabia, but says he knows of only the usual piecemeal smuggling, a few guns at a time.

"At first we got weapons from battling the [Syrian] army, then Lebanon helped with light weapons for a while. But then the Syrian army and Hezbollah started to block that route," Kurdi says. "If people want to know where our guns come from now, they're mostly from Syria itself."

Lebanese activists say their supply lines are in fact still open, and more weapons are getting across that frontier than anywhere else, but even there the traffic is sporadic.

As for acquiring arms inside Syria, Abu Ismail, a veteran activist operating in southern Turkey, says it's not surprising that there are plenty of Syrians willing to sell guns to the opposition.

"From what I hear, [the rebels] need almost everything. But they can easily get guns inside. The regime spent 40 years building a deeply corrupt country, and now they can pay the price," he says.

'Help Us Before It's Too Late'

Abu Ismail is a soft-spoken, stocky man from the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. He sees the divisions within the Syrian opposition and ongoing international indecision as a recipe for humanitarian disaster.

"By now, the world knows what's going on and still nothing happens. Perhaps you could try looking at us as human beings, instead of pieces in a political game that will help or hurt other countries like Israel," he says. "Just find some way to help us before it's too late."

For 18-year-old Mohammed Ibrahim, the uprising has ended in a Turkish hospital bed.

His dark, slightly haunted eyes peer out from an unlined face as he explains how he ran to help victims of an artillery shelling in a village near Hama when another shell shattered his right leg, leaving him to crawl over body parts to escape.

He is proud of his contribution to the uprising: He was the singer at his village's demonstrations, keeping the crowd's spirits up as they defied the might of the army.

The stump of his leg twitches as he sings, "My country is a paradise, even when it's hell. ... Hama, please forgive us."

The song vows to avenge the deaths of martyrs and liberate Syria from "the treacherous Bashar," referring to the Syrian president.

Like the opposition, the song doesn't specify when that might be achieved.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block.

And in this part of the program we'll take up the issue of arming the Syrian rebels. Syrians escaping to Lebanon and Turkey tell of horrific damage and brutal killings wrought by the Syrian army in rebel-held areas. There has been tough talk internationally about sending arms to aid the rebels. But opposition fighters say so far there is little sign of that happening.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has our first report from the Turkish/Syrian border.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: It's a clear and piercingly cold night on a desolate dirt road just yards from Syria. A small knot of visitors shivers and strains to hear the sound of Syrian refugees negotiating a shallow river. It's their last obstacle before reaching refuge in Turkey.

On this night, as it happens, a Turkish army patrol pulls up just as the Syrians appear and herds them onto a truck for the trip to a nearby camp. The waiting journalists won't get these stories tonight, but a few more Syrian families will be putting their children to bed in a safe place for the first time in a long while.

In a nondescript apartment room on the Turkish side of the border, clouds of cigarette smoke drift toward the ceiling as opposition activists ponder how to keep people and supplies moving across the border. Abu Jafar is the assumed name of a Syrian smuggler who's been dodging army patrols for the past several months.

ABU JAFAR: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: He says they're still getting back and forth, but the Syrian army has begun occupying whole villages to block their path. And they have to be very careful when villages rise up and protest, because that attracts the security forces.

In Arab and Western capitals, the talk has been of a pro-reform uprising turning into an armed insurgency. Washington accuses Iran of supporting the regime's crackdown, while Damascus claims that the Saudis, Americans and Israelis are already covertly arming what it calls the armed gangs opposing it.

For captain Ayham al-Kurdi, a Free Syrian Army officer, this debate might as well be taking place on another planet. He's heard of mysterious arms deliveries from Qatar or Saudi Arabia, but says he only knows of the usual piecemeal smuggling, a few guns at a time.

CAPTAIN AYHAM AL-KURDI: (Through Translator) At first, we got weapons from battling the army. Then, Lebanon helped with light weapons for a while. But then the Syrian army and Hezbollah started to block that route. If people want to know where our guns come from now, they're mostly from Syria itself.

KENYON: Lebanese activists say their supply lines are in fact still open, and more weapons are getting across that frontier than anywhere else, but even there the traffic is sporadic.

As for acquiring arms inside Syria, a veteran activist operating in southern Turkey, named Abu Ismail, says it's not surprising that there are plenty of Syrians willing to sell guns to the opposition.

ABU ISMAIL: (Through Translator) From what I hear, they need almost everything but they can easily get guns inside. The regime spent 40 years building a deeply corrupt country and now they can pay the price.

KENYON: Abu Ismail is a soft-spoken, stocky man from the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. He sees the divisions within the Syrian opposition and ongoing international indecision as a recipe for humanitarian disaster.

ISMAIL: (Through Translator) By now, the world knows what's going on and still nothing happens. Perhaps you could try looking at us as human beings, instead of pieces in a political game that will help or hurt other countries like Israel. Just find some way to help us before it's too late.

KENYON: For 18-year-old Mohammed Ibrahim, the uprising has ended in a Turkish hospital bed.

MOHAMMED IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Mohammed's dark, slightly haunted eyes peer out from an unlined face, as he explains how he ran to help victims of an artillery shelling in a village near Hama when another shell shattered his right leg, leaving him to crawl over body parts to escape. Mohammed was proud of his contribution to the uprising. He was the singer at his village's demonstrations, keeping the crowd's spirits up as they defied the might of the army.

IBRAHIM: (Singing in foreign language)

KENYON: The stump of his leg twitches as he sings: My country is a paradise, even when its hell. Hama please forgive us. The song vows to avenge the deaths of martyrs and liberate Syria from the treacherous Bashar. Like the opposition so far, the song doesn't specify how that might be achieved.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, near the Turkey-Syria border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.