Teacher-turned-smuggler keeps Syrias rebellion alive

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He says he has bought communications equipment for the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, the largest umbrella group of armed factions fighting to bring down Assad.

He also deals in weapons and ammunition for brigade commanders across the northwestern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, and even dabbles in wood burners for neighbors anxious to save on winter heating bills.

“It depends on people and demand. When they ask me for something I try to get it. Sometimes that’s every day and sometimes it’s once a week,” he told AFP in an interview on the Syrian-Turkish border.

“Most of my work is connecting people. If someone needs something in one place, I put them in touch with the person who can do that,” he said.

Mobile Syrian government checkpoints, air strikes and shelling, make rebel supply lines within Syria dangerous and unpredictable.

International sanctions also mean many supplies are simply unavailable, so that even basic food and relief items come from outside.

So Turkey is the linchpin of the entire operation.

“If Turkey wants to guard the border properly, the rebels will lose in 10 days because it’s the main source of everything,” Abu Abdo says.

“Everything we need for the camps like phones, blankets, mats, food is coming through Turkey and because of the sanctions on Syria, no one can transfer any money to a Syrian bank so we’re using the help of Turks to get money into Syria.”

“And transporting goods from Turkey is easy because you avoid (Syrian) military and regime checkpoints” that would be a problem if the goods were coming from elsewhere in Syria. “For example, if you get tents for refugees and we’re stopped at a checkpoint we’ll be accused of starting a training camp.”

The smuggling itself happens early in the morning, when Turkish guards are not there or are changing watch.

The Turkish smugglers take $5 (3.95 euros) commission on each item.

Abu Abdo says he makes no profit, but is instead motivated by the dream of turning Syria into a “democratic country with rights for everyone.”

He deeply opposes any potential break-up of the country, calling secession or federation “a waste of the blood and sacrifice”.

But it’s a risky job and he’s had some close calls.

Like the time he was waiting for five satellite Internet devices, his most expensive haul, at a hefty $1,100 each.

Turkish “soldiers caught us. I was standing there waiting to receive them. I spoke to the officer myself, and he said either you leave now or I’ll arrest you because you’re smuggling stuff. So we lost the devices,” he smiled.

Then there was the time he was ferrying a wounded man back from Turkey to the town of Taftanaz, when they nearly drove straight into a government checkpoint.

“We turned around just in time, waved and said ‘hi’ out of the window, gesturing that we had made a mistake. They must have assumed we were pro-regime, because they didn’t stop us,” he says.

Although he has heard of Turkish weapons bought with Qatari and Saudi cash being smuggled across the border, he says he hasn’t seen any.

Instead, he says weapons are smuggled mostly within Syria. Rebels are so poorly armed that they buy and sell between units depending on local requirements.

And in comparatively peaceful areas, such as Alawite communities in Hama province, Kalashnikovs, RPGs and small machineguns are cheaper and freely available.

But it’s the guns from Iraq, he says, which are the cheapest and best quality.

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