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Syria’s arms economy

Price dip in Lebanon indicates increased supply next door

by Nicholas Blanford

The prices of some popular weapons on Lebanon's black market have dropped for the first time since the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.

Bearing in mind that the demand that drove prices to record highs was almost all from Syria, the recent dip appears to strengthen reports that Syria's armed opposition is gaining ever-greater access to weapons and ammunition.

The two weapon types that recorded the largest drop are AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. In March 2011, a good-quality Russian AK-47 or the Polish-manufactured version, known in Lebanon as a “Circle 11” from the stamp on the metalwork, cost around $1,100. By April this year, however, the rifle had doubled in price to around $2,200. The price climb for RPGs was even higher. A single grenade in March 2011 was worth $100 (itself a significant rise given that five years earlier it was selling for about $10). By April, however, it was nudging close to $1,000. Arms dealers were grumbling that they could not even find RPG rounds on the market.

However, since the beginning of May, both AK-47 and RPG prices have dropped to around $1,800 and $700 respectively. The cost of 7.62mm ammunition for the AK-47 also has declined from around $100 for a box of 50 rounds in April to $83 in June. Both AK-47 rifles and RPGs were the most commonly used, and sought after, weapons for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other armed opposition groups. The drop in prices suggests that the FSA is receiving a regular supply of armaments today, which has lessened demand in Lebanon.

It is widely believed that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have begun funding the FSA and that fresh arms supplies are reaching the fighters, mainly from Turkey. The New York Times reported in mid-June that CIA officers were in Turkey monitoring the flow of weapons to ensure that the recipients were not groups that shared Al-Qaeda's ideology.

The FSA also has had increasing success in raiding Syrian army depots and stealing weapons and ammunition, or co-opting Syrian army officers with access to arsenals. Indeed, the profits to be made from selling weapons have spurred Syrian soldiers to steal weapons and sell them on the black market, according to Lebanese arms dealers. That has led to some Syrian army weapons, including RPG rounds, to enter the Lebanese market.

The enormous profits to be made from selling arms has blurred political loyalties. There is a story presently circulating in the Bekaa about a member of a Syrian-backed political party who was in charge of the group's arsenal in his village. He struck a deal with a man from an influential family to sell the weapons to the Syrian opposition and they would split the proceeds. The weapons were duly sold across the border, but the second man then refused to share the profit with the party member. In revenge, the party member told the police where they could find the second man, who had a string of arrest warrants. The police laid an ambush and the second man died in a gunfight. The relatives of the second man then kidnapped the party member and he has not been seen since.

While AK-47 and RPG prices have declined, the cost of prestige weapons continues to climb. They include arms such as the AKS-74U, popularly known in Lebanon as the “Bin Laden gun” as it apparently was favored by the former Al-Qaeda leader. A Bin Laden gun costs $5,000 today, compared to about $2,800 a year ago. A Russian “Dushka” 12.7mm heavy machine gun is worth a staggering $9,000 compared to $3,000 in March 2011. Even that pales to the price of an American M4 assault rifle fitted with a M203 grenade launcher. Worth $5,000 in March 2011, today it will set you back at least $15,000.

 

NICHOLAS BLANFORD is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London

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