When wealthy sheikhs don’t contact directly with fighters, they use representatives. But who are the representatives in charge for the wealthy Sheikhs of funneling guns to the jihadis and to the FSA?
“The middlemen of [Saudi Araia and Qatar] operate out of Turkey,” writes Rania Abouzeid, from Idlib province (Sept. 18, 2012).
“As TIME reported in June,” she wrote, “a secretive group operates something like a COMMAND CENTER IN ISTANBUL, directing the distribution of vital military supplies believed to be provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and transported with the help of Turkish intelligence to the Syrian border and then to the rebels.”
So who is party to the ISTANBUL COMMAND CENTER via which gold translates into guns conveyed to the bands of war and the FSA on the ground of Syria? “According to sources who have dealt with him, Saudi Arabia’s man in the Istanbul control center is a Lebanese politician named Okab Sakr” (TIME).
“He [Okab Sakr] belongs to the Future Movement, the organization of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which has a history of enmity with Damascus” (TIME).
The Guardian: “‘Every time Okab is in town the weapons start to move across the border,’ said a rebel colonel [FSA] from the Jebel al-Zawiya region.”
Okab Sakr is “coordinating arms shipments to rebels,” writes Radwan Mortada of the news service Akhbar. Okab Sakr is “considered by many to be the most important liaison between Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the Syrian civil war.”
The New York Times quoted Syrian armed groups along the Syria-Turkey border as saying that “Riyadh’s main supplier of weapons was Lebanese Member of Parliament Okab Sakr.” A Syrian rebel leader reportedly told the Times that Sakr “[asked] rebels for the name and contacts of a weapons dealer from the former Yugoslavia that he was hoping to meet.”
The Time reported that rebel sources who dealt with Okab Sakr say he was in the Turkish city of Antakya, overseeing the distribution of “small consignments of 50,000 Kalashnikov bullets and several dozen rocket-propelled grenades” to the Free Syrian Army. Free Syrian Army sources told the Time that Okab Sakr was designating the representatives in Syria to whom the Istanbul Center would funnel “Kalashnikov rifles, BKC machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and ammunition.”
According to the magazine Foreign Policy, Saudi’s man Okab Sakr supported Jamal Maarouf, the leader of the Shields.
Abu Issa bristled when asked about the influence of Sakr. “We will not accept becoming tools for anyone,” he told TIME, “nor do we accept any living being, whether foreign or from within the revolution, acting in a manner to divide revolutionaries.”
Sakr also meets with the leadership of the FSA. The founder of the FSA, Col. Riad al-Asaad, is based in Turkey now, the TIME did report.
Colonel Afif Suleiman, the head of the Idlib Military Council (FSA), a grouping of 16 military units from across the province, says he is unhappy with the support he gets from the Istanbul control room. Okab Sakr, says Suleiman, “got involved in the issue of weapons to split our ranks, to divide the revolutionaries.” Sakr, he says, recently “chose three people on our council and supported them. I won’t name them. They are not the largest units. There is one big group, but the others are just regular ones,” Suleiman told TIME.
According to several sources, the large group in the Idlib military council that Sakr supported — to the aggravation of Suleiman and Abu Issa — is the band of Jamal Maarouf, the leader of The Seals.
If both Maarouf and Issa stand together with the Free Syrian Army against the regime of Assad, they do, however, rivalize for weapons and territories. Abu Issa’s turf starts where Jamal Marrouf’s stops, “but for a few villages where the two groups happily coexist,” write Sarah Birke and Katie Paul for The New Republic.
“He [Okab Sakrs]”, says Suleiman, “formed a rift within the council [the Military Council of Idlib], and we are working to heal this rift. We clarified the issue to our Saudi brothers about Okab. They promised that there will be no support, either military or financial, except via the councils. This is what they recently promised us.”
The Istanbul Control Room is the nexus point of many money lines, such as the Qatari’s, and the Saudi’s. And of many different bands of warriors, trying to get more weapons.
The Istanbul Control Room is a very active nexus between war factions on the ground of Syria, and money from abroad buying the guns.
While the Qataris reportedly have strong ties to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudis “don’t want any ties to anything called Muslim Brothers,” says Ahmad Zeidan, the nom de guerre of a member of the Idlib Military Council.
Abu Issa too is no great friend of the Muslim Brotherhood. On Aug. 19, he announced via a YouTube Video his withdrawal from a coalition financed by the Muslim Brotherhood because, he said, the Brotherhood politicized it by naming the coalition after their own party, rather than calling it something that reflected the diverse nature of the grouping.
In Idlib, another band fighting in joint operations among groups is the Freemen.
“The bulk of Ahrar al-Sham’s [The Freemen] substantial funding reportedly comes from Kuwait.” But since they are also part of the Idlib Military Council, they might get guns from the Istanbul Exchange Room.
All the money-lines — from the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Syrian Council and the Qataris, to private backers based in Saudi Arabia — compete with each others to align themselves with the coalition of warriors that will eventually win the hot war on the ground. The locus of this competition among money-men is the Istanbul Exchange Room.
Molham Aldrobi, an executive member of the Muslim Broterhood and a founding member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), told TIME from his home in Saudi Arabia: “The MB does exist in the ground [in Syria]. We work under the FSA umbrella,” he said”. And the reporter says he said there was at least one member of the MB in what we call the the Istanbul Exchange Room.
“[OKAB SAKR] apparently was in the southern Turkish city of Antakya [Antioche] in late August. A TIME inquiry with an Antakya hotel confirms Sakr was in the area at the time. According to rebel sources who dealt with him, the Lebanese politician was there overseeing the distribution of batches of supplies — small consignments of 50,000 Kalashnikov bullets and several dozen rocket-propelled grenades — to at least four different FSA groups in Idlib province as well as larger consignments to other areas including Homs. The FSA sources also say he met with some commanders but not others — a selectivity that led to much chagrin.”
According to FSA sources,” writes the TIME, “prominent activists and members of the Istanbul control room, Sakr was mainly responsible for designating the representatives in Syria’s 14 provinces to whom the Istanbul center would funnel small batches of light weapons — Kalashnikov rifles, BKC machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and ammunition — to reach FSA groups operating in each area. But the 20 or so Syrians selected to distribute armaments (some areas, like Damascus, have more than one representative) were not all effective. These representatives were “supposed to deliver the support inside, but they did not have a presence on the ground. They weren’t known,” says an influential U.S.-based Syrian activist with wide contacts inside Syria who played a role in setting up the Istanbul operations room. “I saw this weak point, so I connected Okab to people I knew were working on the ground. And I wasn’t the only one to do this. Others did too, because we wanted the room to succeed.”
Goods would be delivered to a Military Council of the FSA and then distributed to the bands of war and to the military units under its umbrella.
“We were given lists by brigade leaders of their men, but we stopped believing the numbers,” says a member of the Istanbul room from Syria’s Idlib province.”
“In the town of Bdeeta in Idlib province — which happens to be the hometown of Riad al-As’aad — rebel fighters complain bitterly about the lack of assistance. “We are licking our plates. We beg for salt,” says Abu Mar’iye, who heads the Martyrs of Ibditha group in the tiny town, home to some 2,000 people. “It’s not enough. Even the weapons that arrive, it’s like a drop, just enough so the fighting continues, so we can kill each other but not win.
The men claim that groups with higher media profiles — those that produce the most sensational snippets of amateur video, the ones with the most YouTube hits — receive the largest share of the spoils, regardless of the strategic importance of their operations. The videos serve as advertisements to solicit funding and weapons not only from the ISTANBUL COMMAND CENTER but also from private donors including clerics in the Gulf with massive fundraising abilities.
All those media production shall provide us with plenty of materials to follow. And following the media production almost coincides now with following the money that will feed the war machines aiming to terminate the Assad regime.