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Colonel Gaddafi’s Legacy? Unregulated Libyan weapons ‘flood’ Syria

Published time: June 22, 2013 22:41
Edited time: June 23, 2013 18:26
AFP Photo / Philippe Desmazes

AFP Photo / Philippe Desmazes

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 aid.

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 in 2011.

"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."

Kornets anti-tank missiles

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 York Times.

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 “approved” units.

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.

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