* Black Sea region tapped for arms supplies
* West fears arms falling into wrong hands - sources
By Jonathan Saul and Mariam Karouny
LONDON/BEIRUT, July 13 Syrian rebels are
smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and
sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through
Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian
Army (FSA) officers say.
Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are
involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border
region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such
as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or
FSA fighters say munitions supply chains remain tenuous. In
one clash last week, rebel fighters say they ran out of
ammunition which forced them to retreat from one of their
strongholds in the northern Idlib province.
The steady trickle of relatively unsophisticated arms making
its way to forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad is being
financed mainly by wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and
Qatar, a se c urity source said, as well as from expatriate Syrian
It complements supplies captured from the Syrian army or
brought by defectors.
"There are three gateways from where we are getting weapons
and they are not secret - Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq," an FSA
officer in Syria said. "The weapons entering Turkey are by sea
and in containers."
Turkey, which hosts the FSA in the border area and is in the
forefront of diplomatic efforts to unseat Assad, says it is not
supplying the rebels with weapons, nor allowing passage of arms
through its ports or across its territory. However, officials
accept a small amount of weaponry is spirited across an almost
900 Km (550 mile) frontier hard to patrol and always prone to
The FSA, for its part, would like more powerful arms to
attack government armour and defend or extend territory it has,
in a change of tactics, begun to seize in recent weeks.
"Of course the weapons we have and we are receiving cannot
determine the battle with Assad and finish him. We need more,
much more but it helps inflict damage," the FSA officer said.
Several security and maritime intelligence sources said
light arms were being procured especially from the Black Sea
"Certainly they are being sourced from the Black Sea area
and are coming in by ship," a maritime intelligence source said.
"We are only talking about semi-automatic weapons which are
easily, freely and cheaply obtainable. Each one costs only a few
A source within the international arms industry said at
least one consignment comprising around 2,000 weapons of
Russian-pattern Kalashnikov assault rifles and also sniper
rifles had been dispatched via Turkey to Syrian rebels in the
past few weeks.
"I expect there will be more coming soon from the same
places as these arms came from and there are enough (arms)
factories around the Black Sea," the source said. "It's small
arms and light weapons at the moment."
Arms trackers say Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine all have
stockpiles of Russian-styled light arms that were produced in
the countries dating back to the Soviet era when factories were
set up with help from Moscow.
"The Syrian army uses primarily Soviet or Warsaw Pact
calibres," said James Bevan of Conflict Armament Research, who
tracks weapons for governments and organisations.
"And if you look at any rebel force, they tend to use
exactly the same weapons as their opponents because when they
capture weapons they can use the same ammunition."
A former official with Bulgaria's security sector said the
Black Sea was the most realistic route for weapons.
"Because of Bulgaria's gradual decrease of armed forces, the
sell-off of arms equipment and the deposition of ammunition,
relatively smooth supplies for such deals can be ensured," the
former official said.
Bulgaria's foreign ministry said the controls over arms
deals were very tight and such shipments were not possible.
Sofia, it said, did not export weapons to Syria.
"Our efforts are focused on working with our Arab partners,
the EU, the U.S. and Turkey in supporting the opposition in its
efforts to develop a credible plan for a free and democratic
Syria," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Vesela Cherneva.
Ukraine's security service SBU said Kiev had a strong system
of control over weapons sales. Romania's foreign ministry said
Bucharest had curbs that would stop deliveries to Syria.
Analysts said despite the controls, Black Sea countries
remain viable gateways given the profitability of such trade for
private arms dealers and lax scrutiny.
A NATO official said it had "no mandate and no role in
intercepting arms consignments of any kind in the Black Sea".
Assad's opponents say just under 13,000 armed and unarmed
opponents and around 4,300 members of security forces loyal to
Damascus have been killed since he launched a crackdown, using
tanks and helicopter gunships to attack rebel strongholds inside
Syria's biggest cities.
BY LAND AND BY SEA
Maritime security sources said consignments were most likely
to be transported in ships to Turkey for onward dispatch to
rebels inside Syria. Ship containers are hard to track and seen
throughout the world as a security concern.
Not every port security has scanning facilities to cope
with a large turnover of cargo.
The FSA officer said they had also bought assault rifles and
grenades from Iraq, which were trucked across the border or
carried on donkeys. Equipment also crossed from Lebanon.
Rebels paid about 350,000 Syrian pounds ($4,000) for
Katyusha rockets and 100,000 pounds for anti-tank missiles.
"We get LAW (anti-tank missiles) and Katyusha rockets as
well as ammunition like bullets and grenades. We buy them from
arms dealers - it is easy in Lebanon," the officer said. "The
Jordanians have blocked most of our supplies from there."
Rebel fighters have said they were also in possession of
thousands of Belgian FN FAL assault rifles.
"One of the most dispersed type of assault rifles in the
world is the Belgian manufactured FN FAL which dates back to the
1960s. It's probably quite likely to be old. They have a far
greater range than the Kalashnikov-pattern weapons circulating
in the region," said Conflict Armament Research's Bevan.
Two maritime security sources said they were aware of
attempts also being made to procure light arms on behalf of
Syrian rebels via private security firms in South Africa.
"What's being discussed are test runs using surplus arms
inside South Africa. We are talking about paper bags full of
cash involved. It's as simple and crude as that and it's
untraceable," the maritime intelligence source said.
However, one South African defence contractor said the
government kept a very close eye on munitions exporters.
"It's quite normal for South African citizens to be
proposing or organising contracts in the Middle East, but the
government would not let arms go either directly or indirectly
to a rebel movement," the contractor said. "No company is going
to take the risk because they are going to lose so much."
A foreign ministry spokesman declined to comment.
U.S. and allied national security officials say they remain
dismayed at the rebels' inability to form a coherent national
movement and continue to be dogged by factional rivalries. The
U.S. and its allies also fear a growing presence among the
rebels of Islamic militants, some of whom Western intelligence
officials say may be affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq.
Nick Pratt, who helped arm and train anti-Soviet guerrillas
in Afghanistan for the CIA in the 1980s, said foreign suppliers
of an insurgency had to tread cautiously.
"There has to be face to face contact in the field with the
people who are going to use these things, to give you some
reassurance that the weapons are getting into the right hands,"
said Pratt, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel.
"What you don't want to do is go through a third party that
takes control of the distribution for you. You may find the
supplies end up in places, and with people, you don't want."
For the moment, it appears unlikely that either the U.S. or
many if any of its allies in Europe are gearing up for a major
push to greatly accelerate arms deliveries to Syrian rebels.
Nothing on the lines of the support given to rebels in Libya
last year is in anywhere in sight.
Graham Cundy, a former UK military officer with experience
of special operations, told Reuters: "In situations like Syria,
UK government priorities are far more about intelligence
gathering and understanding what is going on, than in supplying
one group or another. The tribal and communal mix is far more
complicated than in Libya."
"Any intelligence service worth its salt will be hanging
around the border areas and getting to know the networks that
are supplying the players," said Cundy, who has
counter-terrorism experience in the Middle East as well as other
"They will be monitoring who gets what, because the same
networks that supply opposition groups may well be the same
networks that supply extremists. You don't want a SAM-7 missile
ending up in the hands of a determined organization with links
back to communities in the UK, " he said.
Iraq said last week it had "solid information" that al Qaeda
militants were crossing from Iraq into Syria to carry out
attacks in the 16-month-old insurgency.
Western officials say anti-Assad rebels as well as forces
marshalled by or supporting the Syrian government have killed
civilians, although on balance more atrocities are attributed to
the government side. Opposition sources said about 220 Syrians,
mostly civilians, were killed in a village in the rebellious
Hama region this week, largely by army artillery bombardment
Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years, has
accused Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S. of funding
"terrorists". Last week a group of Western and Arab states from
the "Friends of Syria" agreed to "massively increase" aid to
Syrian rebels and provide them with communications equipment.
"Although the intensity of the conflict is likely to
increase over the coming weeks and months - especially as
anti-regime forces become better armed - there is little to
suggest that either side will be able to gain a decisive victory
through the use of force alone in the short term," said Torbjorn
Soltvedt, senior analyst with risk analysis firm Maplecroft.
(Additional reporting by William Maclean and Mark Hosenball in
London, Jonathon Burch in Ankara, Jon Herskovitz and Ed Cropley
in Johannesburg, Susan Cornwell in Washington, Tsvetelia Tsolova
in Sofia, Ioana Patran in Bucharest and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev,
writing by Jonathan Saul; editing by Ralph Boulton)