In Syria in search of a gun

Damien Spleeters follows one Syrian fighter, Mahmoud al-Khalaf, on his arduous and fruitless search for a gun.

The Free Syrian Army’s lack of formal hierarchy appears to be an asset here [west of Aleppo], as it allows the citizens of the region to organize the insurgency locally and tailor their military response to their environment. Although the rebels in Jabal al-Zawiya recognize a general leadership above them — and though they place themselves under the FSA’s umbrella — these semiautonomous groups of fighters are organized along village and family lines. That gives them several advantages: They have natural intelligence-gathering networks, and they know the terrain like the palms of their hands, having relied on back roads for supplies and secret meetings for many months. These assets, coupled with basic military skills, have allowed them to drive a far superior foe out of the towns.

Now, Khalaf needs to draw on that network to join the battle. Later that night, after he arrives in Ibleen, five young men sit with him in a small room isolated from the family’s house. The glass on the door was broken by the army months ago. The fan on the ceiling is slowly balancing the light bulb, and the shadows are moving. One of the men has brought a “56” — a Type 56, a Chinese-made Kalashnikov knockoff.

Khalaf wants to buy a gun, and he wants it quickly. He has to go fight in the north, where he recently integrated into a group of insurgents whose commander is an acquaintance from Jabal al-Zawiya. His cousins are here to help with the arms deal. This “56” has a particular importance for him: It was captured 40 days ago from the army that had been occupying the village since Dec. 17.

Soon, the rifle is broken open, and Khalaf inspects its guts. “It was clean, but it was not as good as a Russian one,” he explained later, pointing out that the latter would have “diamonds” in the cannon.

Syria’s 19-month uprising has bred a set of popular mythologies into the minds of the men, who have only a hands-on knowledge of weapons. And these myths are now important elements in the arms market. The “diamonds” would make a rifle worth at least $2,000 — a price an insurgent could not easily afford. One of Khalaf’s cousins had brought a “German” to the meeting — actually, an Md.65, a Bulgarian AK variant — that was worth only $1,000. The lesser price was because it did not have the folding bayonet of the “56,” a completely useless accessory in the Syrian conflict. The “German,” however, was not for sale.

“Sixty percent of our weapons are from the army,” explains Khalaf. “The rest is given to us by other countries or bought from smugglers. Sometimes we also buy from friendly elements in the army. But since they keep a pretty tight inventory of their arsenal, we cannot buy the guns one by one. We have to buy the whole storage.”

Weapons from past wars have also filtered into Syria. Presenting a “NATO,” a Belgian-made FAL rifle, Khalaf says, “These ones are given to us by Libya. They are worth $2,000 apiece, or more.” The “NATO” comes with an ammunition problem: It is sold with only 100 cartridges per rifle, and the 7.62-by-51 mm rounds are not readily available to the insurgents. To resupply, a fighter would have to pay $3 per cartridge. As a result, these rifles quickly become useless. [Continue reading…]

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