Guns and Money Divide Syrian Rebels

Suspicion between rebel groups in Syria raises the specter of further violence if Assad falls—and makes the idea of intervention fraught and complex. Mike Giglio reports.

Riad al-Ahmad, an Army lieutenant when Syria’s revolution began, defected to the rebels’ side early in the conflict. In Latakia, the coastal stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Ahmad made a name for himself as a bold and reliable commander. As his stature grew, he attracted funds from foreign donors, a coveted resource in the rebels’ desperate war effort, which he used to arm his fighters. In late January, Ahmad was resting in the Turkish city of Antakya, 12 miles from the Syrian border, when he received a call from a man who said he had money to donate. Ahmad went out to meet the man—and disappeared.

Two weeks later Ahmad resurfaced in a video posted to the Web, staring hollow-eyed at the camera in front of a bare concrete wall. He said he’d been kidnapped from Antakya and brought to Syria, and that his captors were about to remove one of his eyes. Then he begged a friend to pay the ransom—about $450,000, which he’d left in his Antakya home—to keep the kidnappers from “cutting me into pieces.” Ahmad’s friends say the money came from donors in the Gulf, and that he’d planned to spend it on weapons and distribute it among other rebel leaders in Latakia. Later in the video, Ahmad’s head raps against the floor as a jagged metal rod, wielded off camera, digs into Ahmad’s left eye, mashing it into a pulp and wiping it on his cheek. Ahmad’s body was discovered last month in a Syrian border town.

Rebels eventually arrested Ahmad’s alleged kidnappers. To the surprise of many, they were well-known rebel commanders from a smaller battalion in Latakia. Some had even been part of the search party when Ahmad went missing. Faced with the idea that the culprits were some of their own, many of the rebels involved in Ahmad’s ordeal decided they must have been double agents, secretly working for Assad. (In a video interview from jail, the group’s alleged ringleader denied this, and claimed he’d been framed.) But when the suspected perpetrators were apprehended, according to Abu Ahmad Daba’a, a rebel commander and friend of Ahmad’s who was present, they offered a different motive: they couldn’t find donors of their own, and they needed the money to support their troops.

Daba’a says the men cited an Arabic proverb: “He who needs can do irrational things.”

Suspicion among rebels over money and arms is a persistent backdrop to their campaign against Assad. In recent months, wayward rebels have attempted to raid weapons warehouses belonging to the rebellion’s main umbrella group, the Free Syrian Army, says Bassam al-Dada, an FSA adviser. Accusations of arms hoarding, meanwhile, are commonplace—with rebel groups suspecting each other of stockpiling weapons for what they call “the day after,” possibly to be used on one another if Assad falls. Some rebel groups “are using the revolution so that in the day after, when they topple the regime, they can be powerful,” says Safi al-Safi, a rebel commander in Hama. “There is something they say a lot here in Syria: that after toppling the regime, the real fight will begin.”

Daba’a, the Latakia commander, ticks off several powerful rebel groups that have drawn his suspicion. “You don’t know what they want and what their agenda is,” he says. “If the United States knew about this, they would never give us weapons.”

America has been moving slowly toward providing the rebels with greater support. The U.S. government once refused to deal directly with the opposition’s armed element, but this year it has promised the rebels $250 million in nonlethal aid, which could include battlefield gear like body armor. With the Obama administration pressed to respond to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, and reluctant to intervene, some analysts expect it to settle on sending weapons—a task now handled unofficially by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with private donors like those who supported Ahmad. “I think eventually the United States has decided that the path of least resistance and least risk is, at this point, providing weapons, at least on a small scale,” says Shashank Joshi, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London.

But the prospect of factionalism and infighting, Joshi adds, has been a “major point of inhibition” in Western deliberations on arming the rebels. In addition to fueling worries that rebels will one day turn these arms against each other, bringing further chaos, “it speaks to one of the single greatest concerns about the provision of arms, which is leaking,” Joshi says. “And the real problem is not just leaking out of the country, but also to other rebel groups.”

If rebels fight among themselves, or form alliances against one another, Joshi notes, it increases the chances that any weapons provided by the U.S. will end up in the hands of people they weren’t intended for—a key American concern in a conflict where one of the main rebel groups is officially allied with al Qaeda.

“It would surprise me if there wasn’t warlordism on the day after,” says Firas Abi Ali, the head of Middle East and North Africa forecasting at Exclusive Analysis, a risk consultancy firm in London. “Our forecast is that the war continues [after Assad], and you do see them taking control of parts of the country, and you do see them fighting amongst themselves for control of territory and control of assets.”

Command and control remains weak among the loosely organized rebel groups, Abi Ali says, and they have expressed competing ideas on what Syria should look like after Assad. The opposition’s political leaders, meanwhile, seem to have little influence on the ground. The rebels “are still a disparate bunch that disagrees on a lot of things,” Abi says. “And why would these guys listen to anybody other than their regional commanders?”

Rebel leaders, however, have long argued that the lack of a steady and centralized flow of weapons has only fueled factionalism, leading rebel groups to compete for resources while dividing their loyalties among different donors—and that meaningful international support would help to bring everyone into line. They say “that weapons flow channeled in the right way creates political unity, and that if you have something everyone wants, you can unify these competing factions,” Joshi says.

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And many commanders insist that the rebels are concerned with little more than bringing down Assad. “The best strategy to shine in the day after,” says a coordinator with the formidable Suquor al-Sham brigade who goes by the name Abu Humam, “is to try to make your name by helping as much as you can, so you can be loved for liberating the country.”