Jenan Moussa and Harald Doornabus for Foreign Policy – As the United States prepares to send weapons to the Syrian opposition, former Libyan rebels are now going public with the news that they have been doing exactly that for the last year.
“Our Libyan revolution was very much supported by the international community,” says a 43-year-old former rebel commander in Benghazi who is in charge of smuggling weapons from Libya to opposition forces in Syria. “But the revolution in Syria seems to have been abandoned by the world. So over a year ago we decided to help and send weapons.”
Libyan rebels have long seen their Syrian counterparts as comrades in arms, fighting a similar struggle to rid themselves of a bloody dictator. It helps, of course, that President Bashar al-Assad maintained a close alliance with Muammar al-Qaddafi — the deposed Libyan leader even broadcast his final messages from a Syrian-based station after he was ousted from Tripoli, the capital. Following Qaddafi’s demise, some Libyan fighters traveled to Syria to support the armed uprising, but it may be through supplying weapons once used to topple their own dictator that Libyans make their greatest impact on the struggle against the Syrian regime.
A recent New York Times article confirmed the flow of weapons from Libya to Syria and noted that the effort was largely financed by Qatar. But while the article focused on shipments through the air, the supplies delivered by boat across the Mediterranean arguably constitute the more significant flow of weapons and goods.
The former rebel commander personally organized two shipments of weapons by sea from Benghazi to the Turkish port of Iskenderun this year. The weapons were then transported over land, with the knowledge of Turkish authorities, to rebel forces controlling northern Syria.
The two shipments each contained roughly 460 tons of goods — mainly weapons, but also humanitarian items. One left Benghazi five months ago; the second one sailed in June. The shipments included vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortars, ammunition, and — most importantly — 120 SAM-7 missiles, along with their launchers. These surface-to-air systems have been responsible for bringing downing several Syrian regime aircraft this year.
Another shipment by sea had been organized by revolutionaries in the Libyan capital over a year ago, but they made the mistake of attempting to transfer the aid to the Syrian rebels through Lebanon. “This ship and the cargo was confiscated by the Lebanese authorities, who generally are pro-Assad,” says the former rebel commander. “After this failure, I started organizing weapon shipments to Syria from Benghazi via Turkey.”
With the end of the war in Libya, the country has famously become the world’s largest open-air arms market. The weapons used to topple Qaddafi have spread far and wide across the Middle East. Most famously, al Qaeda-linked extremists got their hands on weapons from Libya, using them to wrest large swaths of territory in Mali away from the central government. But the arms flow to Syria is arguably a case where the aims of the Libyan rebels coincide with those of Washington.
The former rebel commander, who also heads a Libyan NGO that helps Syrian refugees in Libya, says most of the weapons and aid are donated free of charge by fellow Libyans. But when the cost of transporting the weapons is high and Libyan funds run dry, he added, a Syrian member of the Muslim Brotherhood flies to Benghazi to provide an injection of cash and coordinate the flow of weapons into Syria.
“What we do is this,” explains the organizer. “We ask katibas [rebel units] here in Benghazi to donate weapons and humanitarian stuff for Syria.… People just show up with guns, money, hospital beds, or sugar. So the moment we have enough we rent a ship or plane and get it to Syria via our contacts in Turkey and — less often — in Jordan.”
Libyan rebels have also sent aid to the Syrian opposition by air. Twenty-seven such flights have occurred to date, says the former commander — 23 from Libya to the Turkish city of Gaziantep and four to an airport in Jordan. The planes mostly took off from Benghazi, but also departed from Tripoli and the eastern airport of al-Abraq, close to the town of al-Bayda.
“Often these are rather small planes,” the former commander says. “Either we Libyans pay, or some of our Syrian friends find money and pick up the bill.”
The organizer of the flights said the last plane carrying Libyan weapons left for Gaziantep around late May. From there, the weapons were brought into rebel territory in northern Syria, which borders rebel-friendly Turkey.
The former rebel commander joined one of the shipments by sea to Turkey. Upon arrival, he visited rebel-held territory in Syria and helped the Syrian rebels in handing out the weapons. However, the lack of organization among the Syrian rebel forces was jarring — even for a man who experienced the Libyan revolt.
“We try to distribute it equally among all the groups,” he says, “but there is some rivalry. I have suggested to the Syrians to create one operation room in which all different rebel groups are present. This is also what we did during the Libyan revolution. But until now the Syrians have not followed this example.”
The former commander is realistic enough to know that the Syrian rebels will not win the war because of the weapons from Libya. But he voices hope that the arms can help the Syrians better defend themselves, particularly if the Assad regime launches a much-anticipated assault on the northern city of Aleppo. “We know from our own experience with the Qaddafi regime how tough it is to fight against a dictator,” he says.
The commander supports the U.S. decision to send military aid to the Syrian rebels, but laments how, until now, hardly any of those weapons have reached Syrian territory. “That’s why we are organizing a third shipment with weapons for the Syrian revolution,” he says. “A boat with 1,500 tons of weapons and humanitarian aid is currently docked in a Libyan port, ready to sail any moment to Turkey.”