BAALBEK, Lebanon (Reuters) - Weapons dealer Abu Wael has traded guns in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley since the last days of his country’s civil war, nearly a quarter of a century ago.
This has been his busiest year ever.
Unrest in neighboring Syria has sent demand for weapons soaring, doubling prices for Kalashnikov assault rifles and other weapons and helping supply the increasingly well armed insurrection challenging President Bashar al-Assad.
In the first six months of the protests, Abu Wael sold 2,000 Kalashnikovs and M16 rifles, the highest turnover of his long years in an underground arms business that has operated for decades across porous Middle East borders.
Prices for Kalashnikovs have risen 75 percent to as much as $2,000 each, while M16s doubled to $2,500, reflecting the surge in demand for arms. The biggest jump was in the price of rocket-propelled grenades, which together with a launcher now cost $2,500 compared with $400 before, when demand was minimal.
“I buy weapons from Lebanese people and sell them to traders who in turn pass them on to Syrian merchants,” said 63-year-old Abu Wael, who declined to give his full name.
He spoke to Reuters with his face covered by an Arab keffiyeh headdress, clutching one of his rifles. He said he deliberately dressed in the scruffy clothes of a Bekaa farmer to avoid attracting attention, never spoke by telephone, and declined to be identified by his full name.
“There is an organized network between Lebanon and Syria dealing with the purchase and sale of weapons of various kinds, especially rifles,” he said.
The emergence of anti-Assad fighters calling themselves the Free Syrian Army, attacking Syrian troops, tanks, and even an intelligence building on the outskirts of Damascus, has led Syria to revive accusations of foreign arms trafficking.
Damascus says it has thwarted many attempts to smuggle in weapons. Shortly after protests broke out in March, authorities accused an anti-Syrian Lebanese politician of funding arms traffickers to supply Assad’s opponents, and earlier this month Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem accused northern neighbor Turkey of failing to cut the flow of guns.
But dealers, diplomats and analysts say that weapons coming across Syria’s borders with Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq may form only a small part of a rebel arsenal that is also supplied by army deserters who bring weapons when they defect, and by raids on, or even purchases from, army depots.
Activists play down the role of arms trafficking, possibly to emphasize the peaceful side of the Syrian uprising.
Syrian army deserters on the Turkish side of the border insist arms smuggling into the country is negligible, but they say expatriate Syrians who support the uprising have sent electronic equipment to help communications as well as cash used to bribe security officers to hand over weapons.
“Turkey is not allowing us the opportunity to send weapons inside,” Captain Ayham al-Kurdi, who heads the Abu Fida brigade of the Syrian Free Army, told Reuters.
Another defector who declined to reveal his identity said $2 million was recently sent across the border “to help our brothers set up better communication links.”
Several defectors involved in what they insist is a small-scale arms trail say most weapons that do reach Syria are brought across from northern Lebanon, where the remote, undemarcated frontier has for decades been a haven for smugglers ferrying subsidized goods from Syria and weapons from Lebanon.
They say there has also been an increasing flow of guns and RPGs into Syria from the Sunni Muslim tribes of Iraq’s Western Anbar province, who have close ties with their brethren in eastern Syria, hundreds of miles (kilometers) from Damascus.
“Due to the inter-tribal ties across the border, Iraqi tribes are helping defecting groups in the Deir al-Zor area. But the quantities remain small and the long distances make it difficult to transport many arms,” Kurdi added.
A tribal figure from the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor, who identified himself as Sheikh Abu Ismail, said more weapons might be supplied in future “depending on developments on the ground and what turn the revolution takes.”
“The borders are not sealed... so arms flows would accelerate in the future if the regime continues its repression and killings,” he told Reuters by telephone.
The United Nations says more than 3,500 people have been killed in Assad’s crackdown on protests. Authorities have since the start of the unrest blamed armed groups for the bloodshed, saying they have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.
Sheikh Abu Ismail said money to finance the trafficking was coming from Sunni Muslim Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which sees Assad’s alliance with Shi’ite Iran as a challenge to its regional clout.
Western diplomats say there is no proof of any state role in directly financing or arming the rebels, suggesting they have so far been able to rely primarily on guns already in the country.
“It’s not unreasonable to assume that a lot of the stuff they get is from inside,” a Damascus-based diplomat said.
“I don’t think there has been mass, coordinated gun-running. But I suspect that if there are tribal members across the border asking for help, they will get it,” he said, citing the Jordanian and Iraqi frontiers with southern Syria.
“There’s no sense yet that governments have been (involved). There’s been saber-rattling - saying this is what we could do - but we haven’t seen that yet.”
Jordan says smuggling across its border took place before the uprising and has continued, but only in very limited cases. “Authorities have always had an iron grip on the borders,” Information Minister Rakan al-Majali told Reuters.
A Syrian man involved in arming the deserters said the main source for weapons “is the Syrian army itself.”
“With the corruption that has infested the country, you can buy a lot from the army,” he said. “I heard of one case where a whole arms depot was being offered to be cleared but there were no takers because it was feared it could be a trap.”
Efforts to play down the role of arms trafficking may be a deliberate policy by activists who have relentlessly sought to accentuate the peaceful side of the Syrian uprising.
“I think there is an effort by activists helping the defectors to cover up the fact they are smuggling weapons,” said one Assad opponent from the central city of Homs.
“They want to keep the media focused on the peaceful revolution happening, not on the armed rebels fighting the army. They are definitely smuggling weapons, I’m sure of it.”
In Baalbek, Abu Wael complains that business has dried up in the last two months, as Lebanese authorities clamped down on the trade and Syria started planting mines on the border.
“The arms market in Lebanon today is frozen. Buying and selling has almost stopped.”
Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Hatay, Turkey, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Dominic Evans and Erika Solomon in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo