Syria's Rebels Ask, Why Aren't The Weapons Coming?

A member of the Free Syrian Army looks at the valley in the village of Ain al-Baida, in Syria's Idlib province, near the Turkish border, in December. Syrians fleeing the fighting in their country are flowing out across the border with Turkey, but opposition fighters say very few weapons are flowing in. i i

hide captionA member of the Free Syrian Army looks at the valley in the village of Ain al-Baida, in Syria's Idlib province, near the Turkish border, in December. Syrians fleeing the fighting in their country are flowing out across the border with Turkey, but opposition fighters say very few weapons are flowing in.

Sezayi Erken/AFP/Getty Images
A member of the Free Syrian Army looks at the valley in the village of Ain al-Baida, in Syria's Idlib province, near the Turkish border, in December. Syrians fleeing the fighting in their country are flowing out across the border with Turkey, but opposition fighters say very few weapons are flowing in.

A member of the Free Syrian Army looks at the valley in the village of Ain al-Baida, in Syria's Idlib province, near the Turkish border, in December. Syrians fleeing the fighting in their country are flowing out across the border with Turkey, but opposition fighters say very few weapons are flowing in.

Sezayi Erken/AFP/Getty Images

In a nondescript apartment room in Turkey, just across the border from Syria, clouds of cigarette smoke drift toward the ceiling as Syrian opposition activists ponder how to keep people and supplies moving across the border.

Abu Jafaar is the alias of a Syrian smuggler who has been dodging Syrian army patrols for the past several months.

He says the smugglers are still getting back and forth, but the Syrian army has begun occupying entire villages to block their path. They have to be very careful when villagers rise up and protest, because that attracts the security forces.

Syrian civilians fleeing the army's assault on rebel-held neighborhoods are also crossing the border, into Turkey and Lebanon, with tales of horrific damage and brutal killings.

Opposition fighters say despite some talk about arming the rebels, there have been few imported weapons reaching rebel hands. Activists complain that the stage is being set for more bloodshed while the world watches.

Members of the Free Syrian Army stand guard near the village of Ain al-Baida. The opposition says most of its weapons come from within Syria. i i

hide captionMembers of the Free Syrian Army stand guard near the village of Ain al-Baida. The opposition says most of its weapons come from within Syria.

Seyaki Erken/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the Free Syrian Army stand guard near the village of Ain al-Baida. The opposition says most of its weapons come from within Syria.

Members of the Free Syrian Army stand guard near the village of Ain al-Baida. The opposition says most of its weapons come from within Syria.

Seyaki Erken/AFP/Getty Images

Only Piecemeal Smuggling

In Arab and Western capitals, the talk has been of a largely nonviolent uprising turning into an armed insurgency. Washington accuses Iran of supporting the Syrian regime's crackdown, while Syria claims that the Saudis, Americans and Israelis are already covertly arming the rebels, or "armed gangs," as they are called by the Syrian leadership.

For Ayham al-Kurdi, an officer in the rebel's Free Syrian Army, this debate might as well be taking place on another planet. He has heard of mysterious arms deliveries from Qatar or Saudi Arabia, but says he knows of only the usual piecemeal smuggling, a few guns at a time.

"At first we got weapons from battling the [Syrian] army, then Lebanon helped with light weapons for a while. But then the Syrian army and Hezbollah started to block that route," Kurdi says. "If people want to know where our guns come from now, they're mostly from Syria itself."

Lebanese activists say their supply lines are in fact still open, and more weapons are getting across that frontier than anywhere else, but even there the traffic is sporadic.

As for acquiring arms inside Syria, Abu Ismail, a veteran activist operating in southern Turkey, says it's not surprising that there are plenty of Syrians willing to sell guns to the opposition.

"From what I hear, [the rebels] need almost everything. But they can easily get guns inside. The regime spent 40 years building a deeply corrupt country, and now they can pay the price," he says.

Mohammed Ibrahim lies in a hospital bed in Antakya, Turkey. The 18-year-old Syrian tried to help victims of an artillery shelling in his village near Hama when another shell shattered his right leg. His leg was amputated and his body is filled with shrapnel. i i

hide captionMohammed Ibrahim lies in a hospital bed in Antakya, Turkey. The 18-year-old Syrian tried to help victims of an artillery shelling in his village near Hama when another shell shattered his right leg. His leg was amputated and his body is filled with shrapnel.

Sean Carberry/NPR
Mohammed Ibrahim lies in a hospital bed in Antakya, Turkey. The 18-year-old Syrian tried to help victims of an artillery shelling in his village near Hama when another shell shattered his right leg. His leg was amputated and his body is filled with shrapnel.

Mohammed Ibrahim lies in a hospital bed in Antakya, Turkey. The 18-year-old Syrian tried to help victims of an artillery shelling in his village near Hama when another shell shattered his right leg. His leg was amputated and his body is filled with shrapnel.

Sean Carberry/NPR

'Help Us Before It's Too Late'

Abu Ismail is a soft-spoken, stocky man from the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. He sees the divisions within the Syrian opposition and ongoing international indecision as a recipe for humanitarian disaster.

"By now, the world knows what's going on and still nothing happens. Perhaps you could try looking at us as human beings, instead of pieces in a political game that will help or hurt other countries like Israel," he says. "Just find some way to help us before it's too late."

For 18-year-old Mohammed Ibrahim, the uprising has ended in a Turkish hospital bed.

His dark, slightly haunted eyes peer out from an unlined face as he explains how he ran to help victims of an artillery shelling in a village near Hama when another shell shattered his right leg, leaving him to crawl over body parts to escape.

He is proud of his contribution to the uprising: He was the singer at his village's demonstrations, keeping the crowd's spirits up as they defied the might of the army.

The stump of his leg twitches as he sings, "My country is a paradise, even when it's hell. ... Hama, please forgive us."

The song vows to avenge the deaths of martyrs and liberate Syria from "the treacherous Bashar," referring to the Syrian president.

Like the opposition, the song doesn't specify when that might be achieved.

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