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October 2012

Syrian rebels ‘buying arms from the regime’

Last Updated: Tue Oct 30, 2012 10:30 am (KSA) 07:30 am (GMT)

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

A rebel fighter looks through the site of his rifle towards a positiong held by pro-Syrian government troops in the Bustan al-Bashar district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (AFP)

A rebel fighter looks through the site of his rifle towards a positiong held by pro-Syrian government troops in the Bustan al-Bashar district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. (AFP)


The Syrian regime may be their sworn enemy, but rebels fighting to bring down President Bashar al-Assad say they pay hard cash to government agents for guns and bullets.

For Syria’s plethora of armed opposition groups, obtaining weapons is a constant struggle. Furious with the West for failing to provide heavy weaponry, they say they have little choice but to line Assad’s coffers.

In a country where national service is compulsory, and a conflict where brothers fight on opposing sides and rebels defect from the armed forces, they say it is not difficult to find a “middleman” or an “old friend” to help.

“We buy from Assad spies and on the market,” said Major Abu Mahar, puffing on a French cigarette over coffee at a gym requisitioned by his network of fighters as a base in the northern city of Aleppo.

He claims to lead 200 men who conduct “special missions” against Assad’s forces. But like other units, they are poorly armed with machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades, sniper rifles and home-made rockets and bombs.

Seven Kalashnikovs hang upside down from hooks and a bucket of bullets sits in the corner of Abu Mahar’s office, which overlooks the mirror-lined workout room where bodybuilders used to flex their pecks.

Quietly spoken and hunched over in a leather jacket, he defected this summer from the air force. And like other rebels, he still has associates in various branches of the government military and security.

Abu Mahar says a bullet costs 110 Syrian pounds ($1.60) to buy from the regime, compared with $2 on the market, declining to specify where that market might be.

He claims that most of his group’s ammunition supplies come from the shabiha, the term used to refer to state-sponsored militia hired by the government.

“We buy them from double agents, they need the money. The shabiha’s God is money. They don’t care about anything else. If you give them money they’ll even sell you their own mother,” he said.

“They have open access to army, police and intelligence bullet stores. They’re saving up for when the regime falls,” he smiled into his salt-and-pepper beard.

But Abu Mahar is evasive about where and how often the exchanges take place. He says his network uses a “pointman” or an “old friend,” and they do not meet face to face.

Rebels seem unperturbed about bankrolling their enemy, particularly when the West has declined to provide heavy weaponry and there is no prospect of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone that was so vital in toppling Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

“They’ve already taken our money for the last 40 years, our gold, our minds, what difference does it make?” shrugged one member of the main rebel group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in northern Syria near the Turkish border.

For Yussef Abud, a commander in the FSA’s Tawhid Brigade, it’s a matter of survival although he claims to have bought regime bullets only “once or twice.”

“What can I do? Sometimes I don’t have enough weapons or bullets. I don’t like it, but without these bullets and weapons, many FSA will be killed,” he told AFP.

Rebels also take guns from soldiers they kill on the battlefield, while others who defect from the regime often manage to smuggle their weapons out with them.

Sitting guard in an old sports complex on the Aleppo front line, Mohammed Abu Issam al-Halabi, 49, claims to have bought his Kalashnikov “from bad guys in the regime” for $1,000 when he decided to become a “mujahid” eight months ago.

“You can’t buy these on the market and I need a weapon. What can I do?”

The former factory boss, with a bushy beard and black Islamic bandana round his head, told AFP that before the uprising the gun would have cost only $200-$300.

Across the road, Lieutenant Ahmed Saadeen, 24, agrees that buying armaments from the regime is right.

Like many rebels, he angrily criticizes the apparent refusal of the West and the Gulf to provide Syria’s rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

“Where else can we buy them?” he snapped, before sprinting away to dodge sniper fire.

Democracy Now : all about Sandy

  • Bill McKibben on Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change: “If There Was Ever a Wake-up Call, This Is It”
    Much of the East Coast is shut down today as residents prepare for Hurricane Sandy, a massive storm that could impact up to 50 million people from the Carolinas to Boston. The storm has already…
  • Frankenstorm: Meteorologist Warns Hurricane Sandy an Outgrowth of Global Warming’s Extreme Weather
    Forecasters say Hurricane Sandy is a rare hybrid superstorm created by an Arctic jet stream from the north wrapping itself around a tropical storm from the south. Jeff Masters, director of…
  • Nuclear Plants from Virginia to Vermont Could Be Impacted from Massive Hurricane Sandy
    The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has acknowledged the massive Sandy storm could impact both coastal and inland nuclear power plants. At least 16 reactors are in the storm’s projected…
  • Hurricane Sandy Kills 51 in Haiti, Leaving Behind Fears of Disease Outbreak and Growing Toll
    As Hurricane Sandy makes its way to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, it has already left behind a trail of destruction in Haiti, Jamaica and Cuba. Government officials have reported…

The Fall of the House of Asad, a rerun with interesting comments added


Robin Yassin-Kassab

with 5 comments

steve bell’s asad

This review of David Lesch’s book was written for the Scotsman.

Until his elder brother Basil died in a car crash, Bashaar al-Assad, Syria’s tyrant, was planning a quiet life as an opthalmologist in England. Recalled to Damascus, he was rapidly promoted through the military ranks, and after his father’s death was was confirmed in the presidency in a referendum in which he supposedly achieved 97.29% of the vote. Official discourse titled him ‘the Hope.’

Propaganda aside, the mild-mannered young heir enjoyed genuine popularity and therefore a long grace period, now entirely squandered. He seemed to promise a continuation of his father’s “Faustian bargain of less freedom for more stability” – not a bad bargain for a country wracked by endless coups before the Assadist state, and surrounded by states at war – while at the same time gradually reforming. Selective liberalisation allowed for a stock market and private banks but protected the public sector patronage system which ensured regime survival. There was even a measure of glasnost, a Damascus Spring permitting private newspapers and political discussion groups. It lasted eight months, and then the regime critics who had been encouraged to speak were exiled or imprisoned. Most people, Lesch included, blamed the Old Guard rather than Bashaar.

“I got to know Assad probably better than anyone in the West,” Lesch writes, and this is probably true. Between 2004 and 2008 he met the dictator frequently. His 2005 book “The New Lion of Damascus” seems in retrospect naively sympathetic. He can be forgiven for this. Most analysts (me included), and most Syrians, continued to give Bashaar the benefit of the doubt until March 2011.

The most visible result of the early reforms was the rise of a new crony capitalist class. There was economic growth, but not enough to keep pace with population growth, or to withstand the shocks of recurrent drought and the 2008 financial crisis. The regime’s socialist pretensions collapsed, and by 2011 Syria’s working classes were as discontented as Egypt’s or Tunisia’s. Still, almost every observer predicted that Syria would weather the revolutionary storm. The Assadist state was expected to survive because of its (false) image as a ‘resistance regime’ amid a sea of cowering Arab puppets, because of the crushed and divided opposition, the unity of the government with military and security agencies, the threat of sectarian splintering, and a deeply-rooted popular fear of repression.

There was a great deal of truth to this perception. Calls for protests in January and February failed to mobilise the people. It was regime stupidity and barbarism, its failure to recognise the historical moment, which finally brought crowds to the streets. (“Bashaar is the real leader of the revolution,” a Syrian recently told me.) In March children scrawled subversive graffiti on the walls of the drought-struck city of Deraa, and were arrested and tortured. A few hundred relatives demonstrated for their release. Soldiers opened fire, killing four. The next day 20,000 protested. Soldiers killed still more and water and electricity were switched off. Protests then spread around the country.

Lesch blames the miscalculation on inertia and instinctive violence as well as Bashaar’s increasing hubris since 2005, by which time he’d survived Syria’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon and the threat of Bush-doctrine regime change. A man who was “unpretentious, even self-deprecating” betrayed by 2007 “self-satisfaction, even smugness.”

At first the protests were uncoordinated, and local grievances were as important as national. Nobody called for the downfall of the regime, only for reform. Yet, crucially, the fear barrier was falling. Lesch quotes an activist on the catharsis felt by many: “It was better than joy, it was better than love. What was amazing was that suddenly everyone felt like family.”

Bashaar still had time, but it was rapidly running out. He waited a week after the first bloodshed before addressing the rubber stamp parliament. Lesch calls the speech “pathetic”, and so it was. Not wanting to appear weak, or to concede to pressure as Mubarak and Ben Ali had done in vain, he blamed the upheaval on foreign conspiracies. In fact, the West, the Gulf and Turkey were willing to wait for Assad to offer real reforms and stabilise the situation. He did mumble about reforms, but stressed he’d been planning them since 2005. Disastrously, he giggled throughout the speech. In the new context his “childlike laugh” no longer provided a charismatic touch.

The vicious circle set in – demonstrations, killings, larger demonstrations, worse repression – until the current crescendo of over 20,000 dead, thousands (including children) tortured and raped, and the major cities bombed by tanks and planes. State violence brought unstoppable momentum to the uprising. Lesch quotes another activist: “If we had known it would reach this point, we probably wouldn’t have dared oppose the regime. But we did it, and now we can’t stop, because if we do they will kill us all.”

Lesch gives a good overview of the various opposition organisations, the grassroots Local Coordination Committees, and the burgeoning Free Syrian Army. He describes the international forces supporting and (ineffectually) opposing Assad, and the ultimately irrelevant international diplomacy.

Lesch finished writing before the FSA became more effective, before the high-level defections and assassinations of top figures. His book inevitably suffers slightly from the gaps and editorial lapses of a book rushed out in haste. It is also difficult to read that Lesch still holds Assad’s spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban “in high regard” (“Do you think this system would accept torture?” she asked Channel 4 in outraged tones).

Stephen Starr’s excellent “Revolt in Syria: Eyewitness to the Uprising” offers a more street-level account, but the strengths of Lesch’s book are his solid analysis and his previous access to the top which, while not providing any particularly new insights, does add an interesting layer of personal observation. Lesch’s disillusion echoes that of ordinary Syrians, and he is therefore ideally placed to chart how the dictator’s smugness has pulled Syria, this ancient country, into the abyss.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 11, 2012 at 10:12 am

Posted in book review, Syria

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  1. […] Read more of this post Robin Yassin-Kassab | October 11, 2012 at 10:12 am | Tags: David Lesch | Categories: book review, Syria | URL: Share this:FacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. […]

  2. An excellent piece. Accurate and beautifully written.

    So why am I clutching my head in exasperation while reading it?

    It’s because you wrote: ” Most analysts (me included), and most Syrians, continued to give Bashaar the benefit of the doubt until March 2011.”

    Then comment: ” It was regime stupidity and barbarism … which finally brought crowds to the streets.“

    Exactly! But why is the the true nature of the regime treated as a discovery?

    It has confounded and appalled me since 2000 that anyone could accept, at any level, that Bashar Assad should be automatically elevated to lead Syria and then taken seriously. And that the situation was likely to be sustainable.

    A hereditary dictatorship in the 21st century? End of story. And one as inept and sinister as they come.

    The bleak inevitability of today’s nightmare from the day Hafez Assad seized power was summed up with crystal clarity by Burhan Ghalioun in a speech at the LSE last month:

    “…the Syrian regime is not a political regime. It’s not even a nationalistic patriotic regime. It’s actually acting only through blood and authority of occupation. The Syrian regime came to power through violence. It never sought to integrate or actually have any sort of participatory approach towards its own people, even in a partial way. It never answered to any political standard.

    …“It’s only through violence or sometimes they resorted to manipulation. The way they always played and exploited any contradictions that are there in Syria, any fractions that are already there. They always manipulated it to rule. “

    (I recommend in full the speech in London at the LSE on 20 September by Dr Burhan Ghalioun, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and Former Chairman of the Syrian National Council –

    What were Lesch and others thinking? That Planet Assad was ‘normal’? That Assad was the Syrian people? That the Syrian people weren’t human beings like everyone else?

    Calling it naivety is being kind. I think a sharp recalibration of his moral compass is required if Lesch wants to be regarded as a grown up.


    October 12, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    • I remember when hafez died there was an atmosphere of barely suppressed panic amongst many syrians. people were terrified of a return to the coups. i think many, perjaps most, syrians welcomed bashaar not wholeheartedly, certainly not beuase they liked the hereditary president idea, but as the least worst option. aand the late 90s, early 2000s looked a hell of a lot better than the 80s in syria. so many people hoped. I too (and obviously i was completely wrong) hoped. i think hafez, though undoubtedly a ruthless tyrant and a domestic mismanager, had a strategic intelligence. for instance, he immediately understood the ramifications for syria of the collapse of the soviet union. i thought perhaps some of that strategic intelligence might survive in the regime and that the family would recognise the new historical moment – 2011, the arab uprisings, etc – and respond more intelligently so that syria could have had a staged route to democracy with guarantees for all etc. i was wrong, i was wrong. (i would say that your characterisation of the baath is too simplistic, although it’s cetainly true that the regime was always based in violence and never in a genuine mass movement. it did however represent a movement of rural sunnis and minorities to the urban centres and a share in power, whatever we think of how it was done and what happened to other social groups. i mean, it had some kind of social base at first, some kind of natural constituency. since bashaar and the crony capitalism (and really since the late 70s when the gloves came off) it hasn’t had that.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      October 12, 2012 at 10:50 pm

  3. Qunfuz,

    Usually leaders are given 100 days in office as a grace period. Assad was given 11 years.

    Don’t be too hard on yourself regarding this. Would it had made much difference if you had wanted Assad gone years ago? Was there any credible alternative after the Damascus Spring was beaten down? Not really. The Assads did not allow any alternative except the mosque to raise its head in Syria. So the only real alternatives for someone what cared about Syria were either to go into a pessimistic funk or optimistically hope that Assad will change. If you want to fault yourself for anything it should be for being too optimistic despite the evidence. But that is not more than an epistemology misdemeanor.

    If I may ask, at what point did you reach the conclusion that the Assad regime was not really a resistance regime? How would you define a resistance regime?


    October 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    • I would define a resistance regime as one which resists zionist occupation and aids the palestinians to resist apartheid. if that’s the AIG i think it is, you won’t agree, especially with the apartheid bit – but let’s not fight about it now. Theoretically a resistance regime could resist in any of a variety of ways – diplomatically, politically, militarily, even culturally. I’ve never liked the term and I never thought the asad regime was really interested in resistance, but it did seem to me at one point to nearly fit as a result of its help to hizbullah – which it seems i was also wrong about. But I still respect the past version of hizbullah for its work for the lebanese shia and for its military resistance to israel. asadist help to hizbullah is outweighed by its slaughter of palestinians in lebanon and its useless attempts over the decades to coopt and divide palestinian political and military organisations.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      October 16, 2012 at 6:55 pm

What’s Wrong with this Picture?


When an exhibition of children’s art from Gaza was banned form a museum in California the competing narratives about Israel’s military assault on Gaza during 2008 were called into question. Susan Johnson tells the story of how the pictures were made and how these powerful visuals from the children of Gaza came to the US. But are these disturbing images propaganda or reality?

A Syrian voice

In answer to this comment from anniebannie

“Joshua has never claimed to be a Revolutionary.”

Dear Annie, Absolutely not! In fact he is the opposite of Father Paulo. Father Paulo is a humanitarian, and a first class Syrian ambassador- who wants justice, dignity and freedom for all Syrians. He sees Syrians as one people, as we see each other. Paulo is pro-revolution, and he is a revolutionist. I fully agree with your premise.

“… by focusing on the fear and uncertainty of the Christians they interview, they give the impression that only Christians are afraid of a changed Syria – or rather that they are the only ones who have something to fear in a post-Assad Syria. Christians are treated as separate from the rest of Syrian society, as if revolution has not affected the lives of other Syrians.

There is also often an underlying assumption that Christians in Syria are ‘special’ and thus should be singled out for focused reports, because their suffering or plight is different or more acute than that of other Syrians. One of the worst examples of this is a USA Today article in May 2012, which tells us that “the uprising has hurt Christians’ standard of living. Foreign visitors are nowhere to be seen in the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma in central Damascus.” This seems to imply that only Christians are being impoverished by the revolution, or rather their impoverishment is somehow different or more significant than that of other Syrians, … Another careless remark (In the Washington Post) is: “many Christians simply do not want to upset their way of living in a country where their fate will always be decided by Muslims.” This is sloppy, biased journalism at its worst. It portrays Christians as living in a bubble, disconnected and blind to the adverse situation of their fellow Syrians.”
Doreen Khoury

.. anyone,anyone, whether he is elakhdar or elahmar, citizen or non-citizen, subjective or bias…who wants to taint this popular Syrian Revolution of ours will be dismissed as “racist or orientalist”.

In his latest post, he cuts and paste from Aron Lund’s paper, Syrian Jihadism, and refers to it as excellent?

“The Syrian civil war is a sectarian conflict – among other things. It is also a conflict along socio-economic and urban-rural lines, a classic countryside jacquerie against an exploitative central government, albeit internally divided by the country’s religious divisions, which cut across other patterns of identity and loyalty. Then there is a political dimension to the struggle, with Bashar el-Assad’s loyalists battling to preserve the current power structure against demands for democratization and economic redistribution. And, last but not least, the conflict has transformed into a proxy war for influence among several regional and international powers, adding another layer of complexity. “

Dear Annie “vocabulary” matters a great deal. The right terms used to describe any subject has to be sound -language/terminology…THE WEST BANK (INCLUDING JERUSALEM) IS OCCUPIED, NOT “DISPUTED”. The term “disputed” started by CNN, now widely used.

In Syria, a Popular Revolution is unfolding. It is not A CIVIL WAR, nor A SECTARIAN CONFLICT, or CRISIS or DISPUTE…we have activists, revolutionaries, freedom fighters…who dared to ask for their rights after so many years of humiliation and oppression.

“In the abstract, of course, peaceful resistance is morally preferable to fighting, but we are not free to pick and choose as we like. This is reality, a reality that has forced countless Syrians to defend themselves against a regime that generated violence and hatred as part of its very nature and not, as one bloated Syrian minister recently claimed, ‘out of necessity’ or in response to ‘popular demand’.” Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Lund’s description of the hyenas,whether loyalists battling to preserve status quo or regional and international powers who are worried from the Arab Awakening does not concern revolutionaries an iota. Syrians are paying dearly to live in dignity, they are not concerned with regional or international powers, with orientalists or racists and their spews. Their revolution is not an ideological one. The Arab Awakening in Syria started the moment they chanted الموت و لا المذله It is not going to be easy, it will not stop. The misuse of language specially by professors-and not lay people- is alarming.


From Democracy Now : Who owns the world ?

Noam Chomsky on U.S.-Fueled Dangers, from Climate Change to Nuclear Weapons

Click on image

In the week when President Obama and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney debated issues of foreign policy and the economy, we turn to world-renowned political dissident, linguist, author and MIT professor, Noam Chomsky. In a recent speech, Chomsky examined topics largely ignored or glossed over during the campaign: China, the Arab Spring, global warming, nuclear proliferation, and the military threat posed by Israel and the U.S. versus Iran. He reflects on the Cuban missile crisis, which took place 50 years ago this week and is still referred to as “the most dangerous moment in human history.” He delivered this talk last month at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst at an event sponsored by the Center for Popular Economics. Chomsky’s talk was entitled “Who Owns the World?” [includes rush transcript]

Assad’s reforms in the field

Rime Allaf : Assad reform: mortar shells, missiles, barrel and cluster bombs all over Syria and equal rights to destruction.

Free in the Prison of Gaza

A film with the released Palestinian prisoners (25 min.)
produced by chris den hond and mireille court, January 2012.

At the end of 2011, 1028 Palestinian prisoners were released in exchange for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Prisoners like Salah Hamouri were allowed to go home, but more than 200 of these prisoners were deported to Gaza or to neighbouring countries, which is a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention.
Some of the prisoners have spent 19, 24, 26 years or more in prison. They are unknown to the world, unlike the Israeli solidier. We wanted to give a face and a story to Amr, Obeid, Mohamed, Wafa, Bassim, Hamza, Louay, Samir, Ata et Tawfik.

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