Idlib, Syria: from olive oil producer to arms bazaar

One weapons dealer ‘The National’ spoke to estimated that at least 30 per cent of the breadwinners in the province trade in arms

In one of the most heavily armed countries in the world, there are no safeguards to know the end-use of weapons sold in the local market in Idlib. The National 

Ahmed Maher | Robert Tollast | Harun Al Aswad | Mar 20, 2021

In Syria’s last rebel-held province, the gun runners and arms dealers may dominate the game, but a cottage industry of weapons trade is keeping families afloat as the land around them is blown up and overrun.

In Idlib, the ups and downs of the price of a handgun over the past decade tracked the history of the conflict. In the early days of the war in 2011, when a faction or the regime lost a big cache of arms on the shifting frontlines, a glut of weapons sent prices tumbling.

But as fighting and insecurity rose, so did the price of a new sidearm.

The National spoke to arms dealers and buyers in Idlib, as well as to experts, about the illicit trade, and heard the accounts of those just trying to make a living in one of Syria’s few booming businesses.

“I am not profiteering from the war. This is my job,” said Abu Uday, a small-time arms dealer hawking his collection of hand grenades, RPGs and pistols.

His small shop is not tucked away on the popular Al Jalaa street in central Idlib, the capital city of the province. It is clearly visible, emblazoned with two large stickers plastered across the front door, displaying a sniper rifle and a soldier in full gear.

“I have been doing this for many years here and sold weapons to all factions, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, I don’t know anything else to do other than trading in weaponry. My shop alone provides for three families as I employ two workers.”

In one of the most heavily armed countries in the world, there are no safeguards left in the arms trade. No one asks for a licence, the reason for owning a gun or which faction you want to fight for.

As well as hunting rifles and handguns, Syria’s arms bazaars stock everything from M-16s to AK-47s and Kalashnikovs.

You can also pick up a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) just as easily, at a starting price of just $100. A 40-year-old Kalashnikov sells for $50, an improvised weapon $46, a hand grenade from as little as $2.

Among the brand-name arms are makeshift handguns, the product of the ingenuity of out-of-work local craftsmen who turned their trade to war.

Then there are expensive, more luxurious side-arms. An American made Beretta Px4 Storm handgun goes for upwards of $4,000.

Often, these sales take place on social media. In Idlib, there are dozens of Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups dedicated to buying, selling and trading arms.

“Yes, I remember this very expensive one. Couldn’t afford it,” says Abu Uday of the Beretta Px4 Storm in a breathy voice via WhatsApp. He says he usually trades in more everyday items.

“Most of my customers are ordinary people who buy weapons for self-defence,” he says. But he admits that he does still sell more frontline equipment.

“Some of the locals even buy hand grenades and put them on car dashboards to deter criminals or as a show of force in road rage incidents,” he says.

These sales speak to insecurity in Idlib where explosions, assassinations, car thefts, stray bullets and armed robberies have been daily occurrences for the past 10 years.

In an incident on January 18, customers were plucked from a shop in the same street just seconds before an explosion.

They were hunting for a bargain weapon. One died and several others were wounded.

Violent extremist groups opposed to the regime of President Bashar Al Assad have entrenched their positions in the last main pocket of resistance and opposition.

Before 2011, many of the city’s inhabitants took for granted their comfortable income from government jobs or handsome money from the trade in olive oil – at least within the confines of a repressive state. Others worked for spinning and weaving factories, although those in the countryside and surrounding towns suffered higher levels of poverty.

The exterior of a gun shop in Idlib. The National 

Today, war has plunged the encircled, poverty-stricken province of more than three million people into scenes of misery.

Those who have not fled at the first opportunity survive on humanitarian aid, living in shared breeze-block rooms and tents, eking out a living from mini-grocery shops or getting a foothold in the murky and dangerous world of firearms trade.

For some families, selling guns is their main source of income – a tragic indicator of the province’s steep decline. One of the arms traders The National spoke to estimated that at least 30 per cent of the breadwinners in the province trade in arms.

Customers buying ammunition at a gun shop in central Idlib. The National 

The road to mayhem

In the summer of 2012, the war in Syria had gained a momentum of its own and a diverse collection of violent Islamist and moderate rebel groups were collaborating to wrest areas from government control.

This followed increasingly brutal government crackdowns on peaceful protesters.

Idlib, with its rugged hills, was vital for the rebel effort, with Aleppo and Raqqa governorates, which would grow in importance, next to the vital “border sanctuary” of Turkey.

But in 2012, the flood of arms had not yet begun.

One arms trader reported the price of an AK-47 rising by more than 200 per cent that year. In one major capture of regime weapons in 2012, rebels showed off German Stg 44 assault rifles – probably a batch sold to Syria by East Germany in 1964.

The fact that these obsolete Second World War weapons were readily used suggests that better guns were not yet widely available.

A military telescope at an arms store on Al-Jala Street in downtown Idlib. The National 

A bloody history

The province endured one of the war’s first escalations when its outlying town of Jisr Al Shugour was subjected to the regime’s indiscriminate airpower, a terrible event that would later define the conflict.

Like Hama before it, the town was the scene of an Islamist rebellion against the regime in 1980, which was brutally crushed.

At the outset of the rebellion, many of Idlib’s rebels sought weapons for vengeance and self-defence from the regime.

But different dynamics were soon driving demand for guns.

Foreign arms supplies started arriving in significant quantities in the summer and autumn of 2013, months that coincided with rebel seizures of huge regime arms depots.

But violent factional disputes among the rebels were already under way.

By late 2015, hardline Islamist groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra, which later folded into Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), were dominant over groups who formed the core of the moderate Free Syrian Army.

HTS is a smorgasbord of rebel groups, some of which have links to Al Qaeda.

This factionalism – and a brutal application of regime and Russian air power – was a key reason why rebels were quickly defeated.

Idlib soon became the last bastion of rebels, ringed by Turkish and Russian forces and their local allies, where a strange war economy has emerged.

Bulletproof vests hanging on racks in a gun shop in central Idlib. The National 

Status symbols

There has never been a dearth of weapons of all types – small, medium and heavy – during Syria’s war. The country was flooded with significant quantities through well-established smuggling networks from neighbouring countries Iraq and Lebanon and from some farther afield, such as Libya.

The main source of weapons, however, were Syrian army stockpiles seized in battle.

“Most of the weapons I trade in are spoils of war,” said Abu Eyad, another trader who specialises in small firearms and speaks anonymously for fear of reprisals against his shop.

Most of the traders and smugglers give themselves nicknames such as Al Dabour (wasp), Al Dhakham (huge), Al Sayyad (hunter) and Al Nesr (eagle).

“The prices fell sharply in late 2016 when a large number of people and militants escaped from Aleppo and Damascus suburbs to escape the regime’s barrel bombs and indiscriminate attacks. They sought refuge in Idlib and some of the militants had to sell their weapons because they were desperate for money and later they became traders themselves,” he says.

Russian Kalashnikov rifle stores in a gun store in downtown Idlib. The National 

Calibre Obscura, author of a blog of the same name, is a firearms expert and consultant who has worked with Amnesty International and the IHS consultancy.

Tracking arms sales in fragile states like Syria, he explains the demand driving high prices.

“The $1,500-plus pistols are status symbols, owned by only the rich, commanders, foreign fighters,” he told The National.

Calibre Obscura does not reveal his real name, saying that anonymity has “tremendous use for research purposes”.

He says that as in 2012 – during the rush to acquire guns – prices are still dictated by whether there is fighting or not.

“As to the price changes, this really ebbs and flows with whether there is active fighting on.”

But some weapons have become status symbols.

“The M16, AK-74M, AK100 series will always be worth more – again it’s down to status.”

With the recurrence of fatal blasts in arms shops and the availability of firearms to anyone willing to pay, the pro-HTS Salvation Government placed tight restrictions on these outlets.

The move was met with dismay and antagonism from traders. They fear a loss of their only source of income to the arms tycoons.

Some of them said the decision was aimed at reaching a financial settlement of up to $10,000 under the pretext of licensing the stores.

“The big shops will keep operating but we will close down,” Abu Uday says.

But it is not only an issue of livelihood.

“This is a war scene and everyone needs a weapon,” he says.

“You have ISIS sleeper cells, criminals, factions fighting one another, militants targeting Turkish troops and their tanks. It’s complete chaos.”