With a massive stockpile of loosely-supervised Gaddafi-era weapons, Libya resurfaces as a key player in the Syrian conflict, with more reports emerging that rebels get material through official and rogue channels, despite UN condemnation.
“It is just the enthusiasm of the Libyan people helping the
Syrians,” explained Fawzi Bukatef, a former revolutionary
commander, who has recently been appointed as ambassador to
Uganda, to the New York Times.
According to the paper, Qatari C-17 cargo planes – capable of
carrying a payload of more than 70 tons – have landed at least
three times in Libya this year, each time to pick up a shipment
of weapons that were then taken the Turkish-Syrian border, and
passed onto the rebels.
Earlier this week, British-Libyan arms dealer Abdul Basit Haroun
boasted to Reuters that weapons reach Syria not only by numerous
charted flights, but also on ships – concealed among humanitarian
The process is not controlled by the weak central government;
instead, a handful of opportunistic middlemen have emerged.
"The authorities know we are sending guns to Syria,"
Haroun said. "Everyone knows."
Libyan assembly member Tawfiq Shehabi said the government tacitly
supports the activities of dealers like Haroun, himself a brigade
commander during the successful uprising against Muammar Gaddafi
"After the end of the war of liberation, he became involved in
supporting the Syrian revolution... sending aid and weapons to
the Syrian people," said Shehabi. "He does a good job of
supporting the Syrian revolution."
Haroun and others insisted that they work according to an
“above-board” scheme, whereby rebels initially approach the
Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the
moderate wing of the rebellion against President Bashar Assad,
which then asks Turkey, the gateway for the majority of weapons,
to sanction a shipment.
Once shipments – which initially comprised mostly light weapons,
but have more recently included Soviet-era Kornets anti-tank
missiles, and Konkurs-M guided rockets – arrive in Turkey, they
are then distributed among the assorted rebel units.
As the rebels do not fight under a single command, pre-agreed
formulas are used to make sure that various brigades are armed
proportionally to their manpower and needs, according to Safi
Asafi, a coordinator commander on the border who spoke to the New
Asafi said that the weapons were not officially distributed to
“blacklisted” groups, such as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat
al-Nusra, but that this was merely a formality, with the
extremist Islamists simply purchasing the weapons from the
A report by Time magazine at the end of last month showed that
weapons trafficking is not restricted to the semi-official
channels, with shadowy backers driven by ideology, religion and
profit managing to set up separate deals.
The piece detailed a negotiation between a former Libyan
anti-Gaddafi fighter, and a group of leading Islamic
organizations fighting Assad. The Islamists said that they did
not recognize the authority of the FSA, and described their
commanders as “corrupt failures”.
The people involved described the talks – conducted in a hotel on
the Turkish side of the Syrian border – as a routine, and
everyday occurrence, as volunteers, mercenaries and arms dealers
congregate in several border towns.
Restrictions on official weapons supplies to rebels by their
sympathizers in the West and the Arab world have been in place
for most of the past two years, and have made it almost
inevitable that a haphazard weapons trade would boom around the
conflict that is estimated to have taken more than 90,000 lives
the UN estimates.
Nonetheless, the United Nations has severely criticized Libya for
proliferating weapons at “an alarming rate”.
A report released in April said that Libya, whose substantial
stockpile is largely controlled by tribal militias and even
private citizens, is “enriching the arsenals of a range of
non-State actors, including terrorist groups.”
It is unclear if the torrent of badly-controlled shipments will
be stemmed, now that most Syrian allies have lifted their weapons
supply restrictions, or if the trade will move to arm those not
catered for by official channels.