Syria rebels seek weapons, money on Turkish border


ALONG THE SYRIA-TURKEY BORDER — The bomb maker was displaying his homemade mortar launcher, crafted from a tube and bits of metal. “Whatever we need to produce, we Google it,” said the factory worker turned rebel commander and arms procurer in a border village where goats and insurgents walk along steep mountain paths.

Most of the time, the weapon remains stashed under a bed in the rented home where the insurgent leader lives with his wife and five children, including two teenage boys who have joined his rebel band.

More than 30 miles away, an emaciated Abed Kafi Abu Zaid lay on an air mattress in the back bedroom of a concrete beige house, paralyzed from a bullet wound to the spine.

“The world has forgotten us,” the wounded man, 32, said as he pulled on a cigarette, his narrow face like a death shroud, resigned to his fate.

The two fighters offer another illustration of how Syria’s conflict is being felt in neighboring nations — they’re on the Turkish side of this more-than-500-mile border.

Turkey’s Hatay province has become a logistics base, arms bazaar and convalescence center for Syrian rebels and their supporters — not to mention a hub of intrigue over Islamist funding and squabbling among rebel militias that seem to agree on little else beyond the need to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Syrian fighters may not carry arms openly on Turkish soil, but guns and materiel are stashed in safe houses throughout this region dotted by pine forests, olive groves and pomegranate trees. Wounded fighters and civilians are carted on stretchers across the porous frontier from Syria for medical care. Syrian army defectors pour in after deserting their posts.

With Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan joining calls for Assad’s resignation, Turkish authorities appear to look the other way. Even though the government in Ankara has reported a buildup of its forces along the border since Syrian antiaircraft batteries shot down a Turkish jet last month, soldiers seen here seem mostly relaxed and confined to sprawling bases.

Orderly but basic camps strung out along the Turkish side shelter about 30,000 Syrian refugees. Outside their white tents, Turkish flags vie for attention with the green, white and black Syrian revolutionary tricolor. At one border camp, young men were taking a dip last week in a fetid agricultural canal to escape the sweltering heat.

Others hole up in safe houses. At one cramped, ground-floor flat in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, on the main road to the Syrian city of Aleppo, wounded men lay on mattresses on the floor while opposition operatives in long beards peered at computer screens and chatted on Skype.

Some Syrians who have fled the fighting were out and about desperately seeking help for their cause.

Mostly it’s a hustle for arms and funds — both hard to come by. There’s a lot of frustration in the heavily decentralized insurgent ranks, composed of dozens of militias, most featuring grandiose names evoking Islamic heroes, eagles and lions. Point men and “logistics” reps for various battalions set up shop in Turkey, looking for everything from bullets to foodstuffs to medical supplies.

“I’m on a mission,” said a well-built Syrian rebel from the central province of Hama who called himself Abu Ali— like others interviewed, he insisted for security reasons on being identified by a nickname. He spoke as he ate kebab and sipped beer at a restaurant in the bustling city of Antakya.

Abu Ali, 31, an electrician who says he was wounded twice in battle in Hama province, declined to say what his mission was about, which is usually the case in these parts. But talk revolved around weapons and money — mostly the lack of them. Abu Ali, like others, says the only well-stocked militias are those affiliated with Islamist factions. Many Syrian rebels here express frustration with this turn of events, saying the Islamists represent a small minority of the opposition fighters.

“They are just pretending to be religious to get money from the gulf,” Abu Ali said of the Islamist battalions and their support from Persian Gulf nations. “They are hiding behind religion.”

The Syrian National Council, an opposition coalition based in Istanbul, acknowledges that it has received about $15 million, mostly from the Saudi and Qatari governments, a pair of gulf kingdoms that have publicly backed arming Syrian rebels. The council recently paid salaries for Aleppo-area rebel brigades affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, an insurgent umbrella group also based in Turkey, said Mohammad Sarmini, a council spokesman.

Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political and social movement, has provided funding to a “few” opposition groups, said spokesman Zuhair Salem. That support is limited and is “not based on political party affiliations,” said Salem, speaking from London. The money comes from private donations and not from any governments, institutions or companies, he said.

Near a Syrian camp in the Turkish border village of Bahsin, a fighter who asked to be identified as Abu Yassin said he and his 100 or so compatriots in an Islamic brigade known as the Revolutionary Shield had been receiving the equivalent of about $120 per month for their services for the last three months. He said he believed the money was provided by gulf nations and was paid through the Muslim Brotherhood.

“We are an Islamist brigade, so we receive help,” said Abu Yassin, who said he splits his time between fighting in Syria and living with his family in the camp.

The funding advantage could put Islamist factions in a favorable position to assume power should Assad be overthrown, analysts say. One reason that Western aid has been slow to materialize is concern in Washington and elsewhere about militant elements within the armed opposition.

There is much talk here of shadowy CIA men vetting rebel brigades’ suitability for U.S. taxpayers’ largesse. Everyone seems to want a piece of that action, but how to get in on the game seems to baffle many.

“It’s all very foggy,” agreed Mahmoud Sheik Elzoor, a slim, bespectacled former heavy-equipment salesman in Atlanta who gave up selling Caterpillars and returned to his homeland to fight. He, like others, came to Turkey seeking help for his battalion, known as the Brave.

In recent days, Elzoor said, he had been calling people in Washington and Istanbul and had just sent an email to a representative of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a hawk on arming Syrian rebels. No firm promises yet, he said. The Islamist groups were sucking up all the oxygen, he complained.

Elzoor, 52, called the recent weeks spent fighting in neighboring Idlib province “the greatest days of my life.” Rummaging for aid is a less exhilarating enterprise.

War, even its guerrilla incarnation across the border in Syria, is not a poor man’s game.

Rocket-propelled grenades, a rebel staple, sell for about $1,200 each on the black market. Elzoor recalled a recent battle in which 13 direct RPG hits failed to stop a Russian-made T-72 tank used by the Syrian military. That’s more than $15,000 wasted.

At a border village some miles away, Abu Abed, the mortar craftsman who goes by a nickname for security purposes, has been working on a homemade alternative to formal arms. For months, the guerrilla leader, who heads a rebel band in the nearby Syrian province of Latakia, has been fashioning weapons and bombs at a home in the Turkish hills less than a mile from the border.

Of the 35 men in his brigade, he said, only 11 have regular weapons. Two dozen comrades from Latakia have been killed or arrested, he said.

On the black market, he said, a Kalashnikov rifle can sell for at least $1,000 — more than five times the price tag a year ago. A bullet goes for more than $2.

Apart from homemade mortar launchers, Abu Abed specializes in roadside bombs, manufactured here with dynamite, black powder or plastic explosives or fertilizer — whatever is available on the black market. Abu Abed estimates that he has fashioned 5 tons of the materiel into bombs, some packed into blue gas cylinders.

As in Iraq, where roadside bombs were employed with lethal success against U.S. forces, homemade explosives have curtailed the movements of Syrian troops, allowing “liberated” zones to enjoy some measure of safety, though the government has the upper hand in arms and equipment.

“We’ve heard promises of weapons over and over,” Abu Abed said. “But we can’t keep dreaming they will come.”

Special correspondent Rima Marrouch contributed to this report.