Where Rebels Drink Tea and Trade Tanks

HASS, IDLIB PROVINCE / Far from the glamorous world of international weapons expos, rebels in Syria are trading heavy arms among themselves,  conducting their business in modest homes over cups of tea.

Written by Mohammed Sergie Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Earlier this year, at a rebel base in Hass, a village east of Maaret Alnuman in Idlib, a unit commander and his deputy discussed the purchase of a T-55 tank with 40 shells that the deputy had sourced from another brigade.

“How much do they want?” the commander asked.

“Eight million [roughly $60,000]” Syrian pounds, the deputy replied. He said he was told that the T-55, which entered production in 1946 and has been discontinued for decades, was in good condition.

“We aren’t going to have problems this time? Can we use it in battle?” the commander pressed.

“I’m not a tank mechanic. If we decide to move ahead with the deal, then we need to take an expert to inspect it,” the deputy said.

That the conversation was so casual – and conducted before strangers – demonstrated how routine this market has become. Still, due to the potential legal implications of trading weaponry and government assets, those involved wished to remain anonymous.

Less than a year ago the working-class civilians and defected soldiers who made up Syria’s rebellion controlled just a handful of tanks and couldn’t afford to buy much ammunition or many rifles. But a year of sustained gains in northern and eastern Syria has delivered some unexpected spoils from the territory they took over: grain silos, oil fields, rockets and fully equipped tanks.

Now everything is for sale.

The most common buyers appear to be the Salafi Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham and the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. An opposition activist in Hama who advises local fighters said that Ahrar and al-Nusra have the most cash on hand because they control natural resources and trade in the east, and are constantly looking to pick up heavy weapons from battalions.

Some smaller groups can’t afford the expensive ammunition, maintenance and fuel needed to operate tanks. When they seize heavy weapons, they post a YouTube video for marketing and bragging purposes, and then sell the weapons that they can’t use to the highest bidder.

The spoils from such a sale can expand a battalion into a brigade, or provide cash to broke fighters who haven’t had an income in years.

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Rebels in rural Hama executed a successful raid on a government checkpoint in November, and hauled in rifles, bullets and a T-72 tank – a 1970s era Soviet machine that’s one of the most advanced in Assad’s arsenal.

The rebels didn’t have the $8,000 needed to buy a trailer, the activist in Hama said, rendering the tank stationary and useless. The shells alone cost over $700 a piece – far beyond the group’s means – so the decision was made to sell. Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra were the only serious buyers, but the fighters, who are more moderate Muslim democrats, didn’t want to deal with them for political reasons.

Instead, the battalion devised a time share for the tank, raising much-needed cash while maintaining partial ownership. It also guaranteed that the tank wouldn’t change ownership and moved hundreds of miles away, and could still be used in the battles for Hama.

The most common heavy weapon on this market is the BMP, a 1960s Soviet infantry fighting vehicle that rebels have been able to blow up with homemade grenades. The BMP has been sold for as little as $18,000.

The Martyrs of Syria Brigade, with between 5,000 and 20,000 men, is so flush in captured tanks – a rare predicament among cash-strapped rebels – that it parked a BMP in a garage in Deir Sunbol, a village in Idlib where the brigade’s commander Jamal Maarouf is from.

<span style=”font-size: 13px; line-height: 19px;”>One defected officer from the Syrian army who specialized in tanks is frequently consulted on deals. In March, he witnessed the transfer of a T-62 tank for roughly $80,000. When the officer asked the seller how the proceeds would be used, the rebel commander said he wanted to open a restaurant and put his sons to work.</span>

The officer said he understood the motivation to profit as the conflict drags on. “The revolution has become a business for some, and people need to live.”

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