Syrian rebels' competition for limited money and weapons turns brutal

Kidnapping for ransom has become common between Syrian rebel groups competing for weapons to fight the Assad regime.

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters hold their weapons as they sit in the back of a truck in Deir al-Zor, eastern Syria November 14, 2013. Picture taken November 14, 2013.

Rebel leader Riad al-Ahmed did not die in battle against the Syrian Army, like so many fellow Free Syrian Army fighters. He was killed by other rebels in a clash over money and weapons.

As the war grinds on, resources for the opposition are in increasingly short supply, fueling clashes between factions over a share of the dwindling funds and arms. The competition for weapons across the border in Turkey is growing fiercer. Groups are resorting to kidnappings for ransom to bring in much-needed cash. Most of that money, rebel fighters said, goes toward purchasing weapons.

Mr. Ahmed was one of those kidnapped for ransom in January. Soon after, his captors released a grisly video showing his eye being pulled out and demanding a 300,000-euro ransom ($400,000). Three months later, his ransom unpaid, Ahmed was killed. Members of the opposition found his body in the mountains near the Syrian town of Jabal al-Akrad, 50 miles from the Turkish border, after weeks trying to locate his kidnappers.

Ahmed, a former Syrian Army officer from Latakia, is one of the highest profile leaders to be abducted, but dozens of lower ranking fighters have been kidnapped in the border region since the Syrian war began. Even less is known about their final days than Ahmed's. 

“I remember during that time everyone told me, 'Riad got kidnapped. Be careful, you might be kidnapped, too.' I have heard of many other people who have been kidnapped. But we don’t always know about them because they didn’t have videos about their kidnapping like Riad did,” says Free Syrian Army spokesman Jameel Saeb.

The network of high-ranking opposition leaders establishing operations in Turkey has grown since Ahmed defected in 2011 and fled to Ankara, Turkey, with his wife and two children. Hatay Province has become a safe haven not only for Syrian refugees, but a strategic base for opposition fighters to buy supplies, including weapons, and ship them to the front lines. Before he was kidnapped, Ahmed was the leader of one of the largest and most organized rebel groups in northern Syria, known as the Peace Soldiers. The group set up headquarters in Turkey in spring 2011 and purchased mass amounts of weapons in Turkey to send into Syria.

Delivery failures

For months US President Barack Obama held back from joining Saudi Arabia and Qatar in sending arms to Syria, claiming the US did not know enough about the rebels and did not want weapons to end up in the wrong hands. But in June, the administration announced a plan to send a limited supply of arms to FSA Gen. Salim Idris and the Supreme Military Council, an organization comprised of rebel leaders from the Free Syrian Army.

But rebel leaders say some arms are being harbored by a select few while others are being intercepted en route and resold, preventing them from reaching lower-ranking rebels under the umbrella of the Supreme Military Council.

Abu Ahmed, a former regime military commander in Damascus, now works in Reyhanli, Turkey, collecting weapons and supplies for a group of rebel battalions in Syria commanded by Gen. Idris. 

"Until now there has not been any government that has supported the arming of the opposition in Syria completely," he said, explaining that they have been purchasing their weapons from designated sellers instead.

The Al Baker battalion, a fighting group operating out of Al Bab, just north of the city of Aleppo, relies on a local blacksmith and his son to make rocket-propelled grenades and other smaller ammunition for the group. Fighters say they receive little outside funding or arms, even though they identify as one of Idris's battalions. 

Many of the smaller brigades operating under the FSA banner never see the weapons promised by foreign powers, says Tarik, a Syrian citizen living in San Diego, Calif. who asked to have his last name withheld for security purposes.

Tarik lobbies US government agencies to send more money and resources to Syria and travels frequently to Antakya, Turkey, and Syria. He said these smaller brigades instead buy weapons with money from wealthy businessmen overseas and smuggle them in via Turkey or Lebanon. 

Each opposition group or set of battalions typically has a representative that they send into Turkey for this purpose. The purchased weapons are ferried into Syria by gunrunners, most often through one of the two rebel-controlled border crossings. 

Rebels say they also rely heavily on defected soldiers or soldiers still working in the regime to provide them with weapons.

Only some of the weapons that reach Syria end up in the hands of the battalions who requested them. Arms smugglers frequently sell the weapons to other rebel groups along the way to make more money, either for their own personal gain or to amass more funds for the battalion. Other times the shipments are delivered to the wrong leaders because of poor communication and planning. Even when the weapons do reach their intended destination, there’s no guarantee they won’t be sold on, stolen, or given to a rebel who tomorrow defects to a rival group.

Necessary risk

Opposition members say that the more rebels compete for money, influence, and weapons, the more dangerous it becomes for those working in Turkey. 

When Ahmed was kidnapped, opposition members from several groups, including the FSA and the Syrian National Council, formed an informal committee to gather evidence and find the kidnappers. Members of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda linked opposition group, also helped the committee investigate Ahmed's kidnapping-- a unique collaboration that does not exist inside Syria. In Syria, Al-Nusra operates independently from all other opposition groups and gathers money and weapons from exclusive donors.

Rahman, who asked to be referred to only by his last name for security reasons, was a close friend of Ahmed’s and a member of the committee formed to investigate the case. He said they discovered Ahmed was kidnapped by a rival group using one of Ahmed’s contacts, who had lured him to a meeting. A fighter who was once accused of being a snitch for the Assad government before the war broke out was also implicated in their investigation.

Ahmed disappeared on Jan. 29. Members of the committee said the kidnappers knew Ahmed was wealthy and also had access to weapons. The committee did not make contact with him until the beginning of February, when he asked his brother to pay the ransom money. Just days later the YouTube video surfaced.

Saeb said the two men accused of kidnapping Ahmed were later detained by the committee and imprisoned on the border of Syria. They escaped during negotiations most likely with the help of a member inside of the committee, most likely someone affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra, Saeb said.

Rahman said despite the growing danger in Turkey for opposition members, the country remains their key to winning the fight against President Bashar al-Assad

“The only purpose of coming to Turkey is to finish the war and be free,” he said.

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