As Syrian Uprising Escalates, Business Booms for Lebanon's Arms Dealers

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Patrick Baz / AFP / Getty Images

A Lebanese man loads 7.62mm bullets in an AK-47 magazine he bought in Beirut.

Abu Rida barely has time to talk. As he carefully attaches a home-made folding stock onto a dilapidated AK-47 assault rifle, the barrel-chested arms dealer quotes prices to a group of young men looking to buy guns and ammunition. Every few seconds his cellphone rings, as yet another customer places an order or inquires about the latest deals.

The turmoil in neighboring Syria has been good for business, as Abu Rida and other black-market arms dealers in Lebanon find themselves swamped by Syrians looking either to protect their families in case the violence worsens, or for the means to shoot back at the security forces sent to crush the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.

"There is an arms selling frenzy," says Abu Rida, "and it's all going to Syria. All of it." He added that weapons also are flowing into Syria from Iraq. The most sought after weapons are assault rifles — the ubiquitous AK-47, and variants of the M-16. A good quality Russian Kalashnikov, known in the Lebanese trade as a "Circle 11" from the imprint stamped on its metalwork, today fetches $1,600 — a $400 increase from a month ago. In 2006, the same weapon only cost around $500 or $600. The M4 assault rifle fitted with grenade launcher, a weapon commonly carried by U.S. troops, costs $15,000. Another popular weapon is a short-barreled AK-47 known locally as the "Bin Laden" because the former al-Qaeda chief routinely used one as a prop in his videos. The "Bin Laden" costs $3,750, up almost 20 percent from last month.

But not all business is Syria-related: The front door of Abu Rida's cramped workshop bursts open and three young men enter, one of them hopping on one foot because of a bullet wound. Minutes earlier, they had been involved in a gun battle with a rival gang in a nearby district. They ask Abu Rida for ammunition for their pistols, including a Russian Tokarev automatic. Abu Rida tells them that he has several boxes of ammunition for the Tokarev, but they date from 1958. "I don't want to sell them to you because the rounds may not fire," he said.

The arms-sales boom appears to be driven mainly by private demand, although there are persistent rumors of political factions in Lebanon and elsewhere dispatching large quantities of weapons into Syria via traditional smuggling routes. The Syrian authorities have blamed "armed gangs" for much of the violence in Syria. Last month, the Assad regime accused Jamal Jarrah, a Lebanese Sunni MP and a member of the Future Movement, which is headed by Saad Hariri, the caretaker prime minister, of organizing arms transfers to Syria. Jarrah denied the claim.

Also last month, a refrigerator truck filled with automatic weapons, grenade launchers, sniper rifles, night-vision goggles and ammunition was seized by Syrian customs on crossing into Syria from Iraq, according to Syria's SANA news agency. The driver claimed to have been paid $20,000 by an Iraqi to deliver the weapons into Syria.

Lebanese political and security sources have told TIME that in the past two weeks, large quantities of weapons have been shipped into the northern city of Tripoli. The origins of the alleged arms shipments are unclear as is their final destination. Some security sources say the arms — mainly AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades — are entering Syria. But according to Rifaat Eid, the leader of the small Alawite community in Tripoli (the same sect which forms the backbone of the Assad regime), the weapons are being distributed to his Sunni opponents in northern Lebanon. "Thousands of street fighting weapons are coming in," he says. "There are countries that are playing the weapons game with us."

The dividing line between the Alawite-populated Jabal Mohsen quarter of Tripoli and the adjacent Sunni district of Bab Tebbaneh is one of the most volatile flashpoints in Lebanon's sectarian mosaic. There is palpable anxiety here that if the unrest in Syria spills into Lebanon, Tripoli will be the first place to erupt.

But Eid's allies are also alleged to have been distributing arms. Rumors abound in Tripoli of a consignment of Iranian-manufacture AK-47s having been dispatched the by the militant Shi'ite Hizballah movement to an allied Sunni politician in north Lebanon. One of the politician's aides allegedly saw that a quick profit could be made by selling the rifle to Syrian buyers. Cue deep embarrassment when Syrian security forces came across AK-47s manufactured by their Iranian ally in the hands of opposition supporters.

Still, the young tech-savvy opposition activists who are organizing the protest movement in Syria prefer to load Facebook pages rather than rifles, and insist that the uprising must remain peaceful. But there are growing indications that some in the Syrian opposition have armed themselves and are shooting back. AS the crackdown by the Syrian security forces intensifies — and the regime comes under growing international pressure — some are beginning to predict that an armed conflict is inevitable. The young opposition leader of Tel Kalakh, a besieged Syrian town lying two miles north of the border with Lebanon, says that the confrontation between the protest movement and the regime will soon "go the way of Libya".

"It will be an armed struggle against the government," he said. "Until the weapons get here, we will fight with our bare chests."