There were no giveaways, balloons or barbecues, but business was booming this week at a bizarre Syrian bazaar – a used tank lot at al-Qamishli, located at the point where the borders of Syria, Iraq and Turkey meet. On sale: Russian T-72 tanks.
(Click here on DEBKA Special Map)
No, not in mint condition, hardly top-of-the-line merchandise, refurbished with state-of-the art, computerized target and firing systems and night vision equipment. The tank on sale was a Soviet product purchased by the Syrian army in the 1980s. As used tanks go, the ones on offer at a rock bottom price of $3,000 apiece, were well enough maintained in good running condition and battle-ready.
This arms market has sprung up, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly's exclusive intelligence and counter-terrorism sources have discovered, in back of the large train station at al-Qamishli, a forward point whence freight trains laden with oil and other products picked up at Syria's Mediterranean ports once set off for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Monday, January 12, in the middle of the night, our sources sighted a tank transporter, its lights extinguished, pulling into the railway station, loading up a number of tanks and heading toward the Iraqi border. The buyer's identity is unknown, and US military intelligence is working on the problem on the premise that an Iraqi guerrilla or Baath party group has little use for medium-sized tanks. The most likely proposition examined by intelligence officials is that the buyers are US-allied Kurds who are engaged in establishing an autonomous border police force in northern Iraq.
(See separate article on Kurdish efforts to establish a state.)
Iraqi guerrilla forces may not be in the market for tanks but, in the second week of January, their agents purchased US-made 106 mm recoilless cannons in another Syrian city, Dayr az Zawr on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River. The cannon, mounted on jeeps, sell for about $900 to $1,000 apiece.
How did these American tools of war end up in Syria?
The long arm of Middle Eastern arms merchants could be to blame. It stretches from the Middle East to Pakistan in the north, the Persian Gulf in the east and Jordan in the west, a country whose border is only a hop and a skip from Dayr az Zawr. The arsenals of all the countries in the region are packed with masses of recoilless guns made in the USA. Any emergency store might overlook 200 to 300 missing weapons filched for the Syrian black market.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, the purchases on behalf of the Iraqi insurgents are made by agents of Iraqi mafia groups and “imported” into Iraq by several multi-forked routes.
(See separate article on reorganized guerrilla movement after Saddam’s capture.)
Some of the guns and ammunition are floated down the Euphrates River aboard rafts under cover of dark. At dawn, the rafts are hidden in the tall reeds growing on the banks. Smugglers jump in the water and tow them with heavy ropes to hideouts out of sight of reconnaissance aircraft, drones and satellites. A second route for the recoilless guns is overland from Dayr Az Zawr south to the al-Qaim region, where they are disassembled and piled on pickup trucks for their next destination, the Iraqi cities of Anal and Al Hadithah.
The route splits again here, heading east toward Tikrit and Samarra or south to Ramadi, Falluja, Habaniyah and Baghdad.
According to our sources, the weapons emanating from al-Qamishli, mainly tanks, are smuggled along two routes into Iraq – directly into Mosul and via the Iraqi towns of Sinjar and Tall Afar.
The transactions for the sale of tanks and recoilless guns in northern and eastern Syria are carried out with no questions asked. All that matters is that the $100 bills for payment are not counterfeit. According to our sources, a whole region of Syria – running from al-Qamishli in the north southward to Dayr az Zawr – is one big arms bazaar. All of the dozen or so villages and towns in the region are in on the traffic, each specializing in a particular type of weaponry, from explosives to AK-47 rifles. Larger items like 60 mm machineguns or rocket-propelled grenade launchers, can be purchased at gas stations in the area. The concept of convenience store acquires a whole new meaning in this corner of the world.
According to our sources, prices have begun climbing at a dizzying rate. As recently as November, a Kalashnikov assault rifle sold on the Syrian arms market for a mere $10. The same weapon – ammo not included – is now selling for $100. A crate of Russian grenades that cost from $17 to $22 is now going for $52 to $58, depending on year of manufacture.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources attribute the rise to heavy demand – not only on the part of anti-American Iraqi guerrilla forces but also their sworn rivals, the Kurds as well as the pro-American militias. The militia forces are in the process of being organized in the Mosul area by former Iraqi defense minister Hashem Sultan and in the al-Anbar region by the US 82nd Airborne Division.
Officers in charge of creating the new militias say the illicit traffic in fighters and black market weapons into Iraq cannot be choked off without the cooperation of local tribal leaders. Every tribal chief controls a swathe of territory and has his price for directing his men to report on cross-border movements. Some of the tribal leaders demand arms, some cash – either a steep one-lump sum or monthly payment. Payoffs may be in the six-figure dollar range, depending on the size of the region and its topography, most extortionate for tribes controlling sections of the Euphrates. Other chiefs want guns – lots of them. Some require as many as 500 Kalashnikov assault rifles, apparently to shift them at a profit. New cars and machineguns are also on their wish lists.
That's where the Syrian black market comes in. It is close at hand, available, reliable and well-stocked. Americans and Kurds may very simply place their orders with local smugglers and delivery in Iraq is made within two to three days.
No one knows how much Syrian president Bashar Assad is pocketing out of this thriving trade. After all, the weapons bazaars are located in his country and much of the wares on sale come from the Syrian armed forces' own stocks. He and his family are almost certainly clearing a cut of the profits.
Washington is now waiting to see when and where Iraqi guerrilla forces start firing their US-made recoilless guns against American troops. Intelligence officials expect them to be used for long-range attacks on US military convoys.