A few short years ago, the Rabia border crossing between Syria and Iraq, was being used to smuggle weapons from Syria into Iraq where they ended up in the hands of Iraqis fighting each other and US troops. Now that situation has been reversed, with guns being smuggled back into Syria, ostensibly to arm Syrian revolutionaries embroiled in an increasingly violent and bloody conflict against the regime led by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. NIQASH travelled to Rabia to join a group of young gun runner, to see how the smugglers operate, why the border patrols don’t stop them and what the smugglers’ motivations are.
After travelling around a hundred kilometres in a taxi, we finally reach Rabia, the only international border crossing between Syria and Iraq, here in the state of Ninawa. During the two and a half hour journey we were stopped at 20 military checkpoints. And at those checkpoints, security personnel always asked to see my identification. After doing so, they would let me past – but not without a sceptical smile.
Before actually driving into the town of Rabia, where it’s well known that the main business is smuggling, the driver, Mohammed, takes a side street to show us the border – we see part of the dirt barrier, two meters high, that separates Syria from Iraq, which runs for 750 kilometres. A no man’s land, marked by barbed wire and one kilometre wide, separates the barrier from the street on which we are driving.
Eventually we drive into one of the tiny villages near the border – it is about 130 kilometres west of Mosul and most of the families that live there have relations and friends just over the border in Syria.
“Barbed wire has not managed to separate these people and it hasn’t put an end to the mutual interests that these bordering villagers have,” Mohammed, who lives nearby, tells me. “A lot of people in this village work as smugglers and they collaborate with their relatives across the border, who are Syrian citizens. They don’t really care at all about the border police.”
Mohammed, who knows the smuggling scene here, then assists me in observing the industrious traders. We wait until sunset, at which stage literally hundreds of men start to cross the border using holes they’ve made in the barbed wire as well in the dirt barrier. And it seems as though there are hundreds of people waiting for them on the other side of the border too.
Mohammed indicates to me what the various smugglers are carrying. Some are carrying cigarette boxes, others are bringing cartons of alcohol that they get from the Syrian side. Livestock also comes across the border. And, he adds, all of those things are cheap in Syria compared to Mosul, where a lot of these black market goods end up being sold.
Then, Mohammed pointed at another group coming toward the border. They are a group of relatively young men, carrying what appear to be grain bags. “Those bags will eventually reach the “hot” areas in Syria,” Mohammed explained – and by hot, he meant where there was violence.
Indeed, it turned out that this was a group of gun smugglers. They were being led by Hamid, a man in his 30s, who proudly told us: “I was the first person to smuggle weapons into Syria, when the revolution there began”.
Smuggling has become a major industry in small border villages such as the ones where Hamid and his colleagues in crime live. And it seems that the Iraqi authorities know this. Recently smuggling weapons into Syria has become particularly profitable. As Abdul-Rahim al-Shammari, head of the provincial council's security committee, says: “the smuggling of arms is increasingly profitable and it’s a growing business. Over the last few months the prices for guns have doubled, and then re-doubled.”
And there are simply not enough resources to control the borders and prevent smuggling. “The brigade in charge doesn’t have enough soldiers, or equipment,” a frustrated al-Shammari told NIQASH.
The border breaches are also cause for concern because one of the more serious problems, al-Shammari says, is terrorism. “According to Iraqi intelligence, members of al-Qaeda [Sunni extremists operating in Iraq] are crossing the borders near Rabia, to go to Syria to fight the Jihadist battle.”
Asking around though, the local people living near the borders couldn’t confirm this. They said they had only ever met and helped Syrian soldiers who had deserted and fled over the border to Iraq.
Today, when the young men of the local villages sit and drink tea together, they entertain each other with tales of derring-do in the smuggling trade. I was told about one young man who made it all the way to the dirt barrier in a pickup truck, carrying a ton of Kalashnikov guns.
We end up drinking tea in the garden of the modest house belonging to Hamid, the leader of the small group of gun smugglers we encountered. He tells me that he first smuggled guns into Syria in April last year. Then there were only 20 guns. But since then things have changed.
“Since then,” Hamid says, “a huge amount of weapons has gone across the border. That first time we smuggled the guns and we didn’t tell anyone what we were doing. But when the revolution got bigger and changed [it has become more violent], almost everyone in our village – and the villages nearby – have become involved.”
I ask Hamid if I can accompany him on a smuggling trip and he agrees, as long as I don’t tell anybody who I am.
Two days later, at sun rise, we begin our journey. We drive a dusty Toyota pickup through arid agricultural land for ten minutes until we sight a blue saloon car. The driver of this car motions to us, to park beside him. Some tools are taken out of the vehicle and the two men begin to act as if they are fixing the blue car, stretching out on the ground and fiddling with various pieces of equipment.
While they are doing this they ask me, to my chagrin, to keep watch. This was hardly dangerous; it was easy to do as all the land around us was completely flat. However I definitely felt conflicted, as all of a sudden, I had become complicit in the weapons smuggling business.
By now, the men are removing weapons, wrapped in plastic, from the blue vehicle. By the time they are done, Hamid had hidden 40 Kalashnikovs and 50 containers of ammunition in his own vehicle. He asks me to help cover the guns with a tarpaulin and together we fasten ropes around them.
We then began to drive back to the village. “So where do all these guns come from?,” I ask Hamid. “And how do they get them through all those military checkpoints?” Because often, security personnel at the checkpoints will not just check IDs, they’ll also search the vehicles.
“They come from Baghdad and from Erbil,” Hamid replied. But he said he didn’t really know much more than that. The driver of the other car was Kurdish – when I tried to ask him the same question, he didn’t answer.
Back in the village the rest of the day was relatively peaceful. However at sunset, things started getting busy again, as the smugglers headed toward the border crossing points by the dirt barrier and barbed wire.
Mobile phones are used to fix times for crossing the barrier and Hamid and I, along with six other men carrying burlap bags filled with guns and ammunition, head for the same area.
When we can’t drive any further, we park next to the border zone. It’s a chaotic scene as large groups of people, carrying cartons of cigarettes and bigger bags, rush around. There are also gunmen who fire their weapons into the air. “That’s to warn the border guards not to interfere,” another smuggler told me.
After less than half an hour, we see the first of the smugglers returning from the border. He is herding cattle! As he came closer, Hamid was exuberant: “Tonight we’re winning,” he exclaims.
Then together with the group of young men, we run across the dirt barrier in the dark. The bags are handed over to Syrians on the other side and they leave as quickly as we came. Not far from us, another delivery is being made. I believe there were many others but because it was so dark, I couldn’t really see what was going on.
Later, I asked Hamid what he had meant when he had spoken about “winning”.
“Tonight we felt really safe,” he said. “Because there were so many of us, and because people were firing warning shots, the border guards didn’t dare interfere. A few days ago the soldiers tried to stop us and one of them was shot and injured. After that, they’ve been avoiding us.”
Interestingly, like many weapons dealers around the world, Hamid and his fellow smugglers were not particularly well informed about what was going on in Syria. While discussing this with them, it was hard to tell where their sympathies lay – or if they even had any sympathies for either the Syrian revolutionaries or the current Syrian regime.
However when it came to weapons and money, they could tell me anything I wanted to know.
“When the conflict in Syria changed, the prices increased,” one of the other smugglers, Saeed, told me. “A year ago we were selling a machine gun for US$450. Today they pay us US$800. We also smuggle medium sized weapons from here. The price of an RPG-7 [rocket propelled grenade launcher] is US$1,100. We also sell hand grenades, sniper guns, silencers and ammunition and prices vary.”
Saeed estimates that during the past year, his group of smugglers has traded around 1,500 Kalashnikovs, 1,000 boxes of ammunition and hundreds of other weapons.
So how do they know that the guns are reaching the Syrian rebels, and not ending up elsewhere? To answer my question, Hamid called Fawaz, a Syrian smuggler, on his mobile phone, to ask him what he actually did what the guns they traded. When he was asked that though, Fawaz pretended he couldn’t hear the question. But Hamid understood what Fawaz was saying. “He’s afraid to speak because the Syrian telephone are under surveillance by the Syrian government.”
Hamid called back again, this time using the Iraqi telephone network. And this time Fawaz answered the question: “Every piece, every gun, goes to the Syrian rebels,” he stated.