In turnabout,Syrian rebels get Libyan weapons

Libya's own former fighters,who sympathize with Syria's rebels,have been eager collaborators

Written by New York Times | New York | Published: June 22, 2013 2:10:31 am

C J CHIVERS,ERIC SCHMITT/ MARK MAZZETTI

During his more than four decades in power,Col Muammar el-Gaddafi of Libya was North Africa’s outrageously self-styled arms benefactor,a donor of weapons to guerrillas and terrorists around the world fighting governments he did not like.

Even after his death,the colonel’s gunrunning vision lives on,although in ways he probably would have loathed.

Many of those who chased the colonel to his grave are busy shuttling his former arms stockpiles to rebels in Syria. The flow is an important source of weapons for the uprising and a case of bloody turnabout,as the inheritors of one strongman’s arsenal use them in the fight against another.

Evidence gathered in Syria,along with flight-control data and interviews with militia members,smugglers,rebels,analysts and officials in several countries,offers a profile of a complex and active multinational effort,financed largely by Qatar,to transport arms from Libya to Syria’s opposition fighters. Libya’s own former fighters,who sympathize with Syria’s rebels,have been eager collaborators.

“It is just the enthusiasm of the Libyan people helping the Syrians,” said Fawzi Bukatef,the former leader of an alliance of Libyan brigades who was recently named ambassador to Uganda,in an interview in Tripoli.

As the United States and its Western allies move toward providing lethal aid to Syrian rebels,these secretive transfers give insight into an unregistered arms pipeline that is difficult to monitor or control. And while the system appears to succeed in moving arms across multiple borders and to select rebel groups,once inside Syria the flow branches out. Extremist fighters,some of them aligned with al Qaeda,have the money to buy the newly arrived stock,and many rebels are willing to sell.

For Russia — steadfastly supplying weapons and diplomatic cover to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — this black-market flow is a case of bitter blowback. Many of the weapons Moscow proudly sold to Libya beginning in the Soviet era are now being shipped into the hands of rebels seeking to unseat another Kremlin ally.

Those weapons,which slipped from state custody as Colonel Gaddafi’s people rose against him in 2011,are sent on ships or Qatar Emiri Air Force flights to a network of intelligence agencies and Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey. From there,Syrians distribute the arms according to their own formulas and preferences to particular fighting groups,which in turn issue them to their fighters on the ground,rebels and activists said.

The movements from Libya complement the airlift that has variously used Saudi,Jordanian and Qatari military cargo planes to funnel military equipment and weapons,including from Croatia,to the outgunned rebels. On Friday,Syrian opposition officials said the rebels had received a new shipment of anti-tank weapons and other arms.

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