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Northern Syria’s Burgeoning Arms Market

January 28, 2021
Dana Saqbani
9 min read
Northern Syria’s Burgeoning Arms Market

It has recently become easier for some residents in northern Syria to obtain weapons than it is to secure their daily necessities.

An investigation by IranWire Arabic has found dozens of online and offline stores and markets have established themselves of late, selling light and medium weapons as well as ammunition of various types, grenades, and accessories.

This has resulted in the indiscriminate proliferation of arms in northern Syria, including in the Aleppo and Idlib countryside, exacerbating the loss of life and overwhelming chaos in the region.

Various authorities in the north of the country have failed to put a stop to this phenomenon, despite having taken steps to control the sale of such items and to oblige civilians to license their weapons under specific regulations.

But because most of these arms sales are taking place online, hidden from view, the market continues to spiral out of control. Weapons are sold online without any request for proof of the buyer's age, any evidence of what the purchase is for, or any information provided on their safe storage and disposal. All customers need to provide is the cash.

IranWire Arabic conducted interviews with three weapons dealers operating in northern Syria, as well as a seasoned expert weapons inspector. The investigation also examined the weapons markets on the messaging app Telegram.


Fear of Attack

Among the main reasons civilians buy weapons in northern Syria are reportedly "theft”, “insecurity”, and “murder": that is to say, for personal protection. Muhammad, a civilian living in the city of Idlib, told IranWire: "I bought a Kalashnikov for US$200, which was expensive, but I had to do it to defend myself due to the lack of security in the area, and out of fear of a sudden attack by members of the regime.”

Abd Khalil, a member of the local council in the city of Jarablus in the rural area near Aleppo, told IranWire that the weakness of local security services and the general vulnerability of the region to attack have compelled many people to resort to buying their own weapons.


Telegram Hosts Markets and Auctions

A simple search on Telegram reveals a flourishing illegal market for weapons in northern Syria. Over a two-week period, IranWire identified and monitored four Telegram groups engaged in this activity.

The first group was dealing in heavy weapons, part of a larger group selling weapons privately, either directly or through an intermediary.

The second market consists of shops in markets selling light and medium weapons, both new and used. IranWire tallied the number of stores operating openly: 17 in the city of Al-Bab, 10 in Azaz, six in Jarablus, three in Suran, two in Mara, more than 20 in Afrin, and 25 in Idlib. In Sarmada and Hazano, such outlets can be found in the cities’ large street markets.

A third market is online sales of weapons, facilitated by advertising on social media, and through various messaging apps. Such weapons are also widely available on various Telegram channels. Complete weapons are available, as are weapon components. They include the Aleppo Countryside Weapons Market, The Great Mujahideen Market, the Sniper Market, Idlib Weapons Market, and the Tactical Punch Market, among others.

Northern Syria’s Burgeoning Arms Market



The authors of this investigation also noted the proliferation of another type of weapons sales on the internet: open online auctions. During auctions, dealers meet prospective buyers at a specified location, and the auction is also open to anyone subscribed to the relevant group dealing in weapons sales. The process begins by the owner of the item presenting the item, which is then bid on until the best price is agreed.

IranWire obtained a video of a gun auction that shows buyers bidding and the details of the sale.

In some cases there are official public auctions for the sale of confiscated items, but participation in such auctions via Telegram requires proof that the participant belongs to a military faction or that they carry a legal mandate from a faction leader.


Affordable Prices

In northern Syria weapons are subject to the rule of supply and demand just like any other commodity. As items are available in abundance and supply exceeds demand, the arms market has become affordable for all.

Throughout northern Syria weapons are often traded in dollars, but there is some flexibility, as described by Hassan, an arms dealer in Idlib. He told IranWire: "The price of any item is listed in dollars, but there is no problem if you want to pay in Syrian pounds or Turkish lira according to the exchange rate."

Hassan said there are families that subsist on the weapons trade, so as soon as an item reaches a price that will generate a profit, it is immediately sold. He explained that if there is an intermediary between the seller and the buyer, an agreed-upon broker rate is deducted upon completion of the sale.

Prices for weapons range according to type, size and durability, and they also rise and fall according to an increase or decrease in demand, starting from 23 cents for Russian bullets up to US$900 for a new and fully operational weapon.

Northern Syria’s Burgeoning Arms Market


Useless Licenses

Several parties in northern Syria have announced that they will be issuing trade licenses for weapons. But due to the lack of strict regulations, the licensing business has not flourished. In addition, there is no system in place to follow up on every individual who buys a weapon. Such licensing mechanisms are also unable to keep track of online markets.

In 2018 Sunni Islamist militant group Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham  (the Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) licensed offices to sell arms and set a uniform price list for sales from parties or offices approved by the organization, which included the National Army, the National Front, the Idlib Free Army, the 13th Division and the 31st Division. At the same time, it prohibited sales to other parties.

Upon completion of any sale, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham required the documentation of a weapon's specifications, the purpose of its purchase, and the listing of both the seller and buyer's names. It also imposed a monthly tax on traders and followed up with buyers every three months, with the exception of those buying starter and protective pistols. In October 2020, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham required everyone to obtain licenses (civilians as well as military personnel) to control thefts and killings. The licenses were free of charge.

A security official in a Syrian relief and development organization in Idlib, who declined to be named for security reasons, said: "The licensing of weapons in the areas controlled by Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham aims to control the proliferation of weapons due to security threats targeting its members in northern Syria."

All sides, he said, were angered by the introduction of the arms licensing law. As a result, Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham has not taken measures to enforce the law, despite acting on behalf of the opposition Salvation Government, which is in control of the Idlib region. It has indicated that it plans to implement the law to a greater degree in the near future.

In mid-2019, the Syrian National Army based in the rural area outside Aleppo issued a statement ordering arms dealers to cease trading, giving them a one-month deadline to comply or face "severe punishment." IranWire reviewed a number of circulars several local councils in northern Syria had issued regarding the control, sale and acquisition of weapons, specifically in Afrin, Al-Bab and Azaz.


Social Media Companies’ Failure to Act

An IranWire correspondent posted on a Facebook group selling weapons, and asked to buy a Russian Kalashnikov rifle. After several hours Facebook deleted the post and sent the correspondent a message saying his post "violated Facebook community standards for weapons, drugs and other regulated goods."

Despite this, there are dozens of posts discussing arms sales in different groups that Facebook has not deleted or dealt with and which remain public and accessible. Facebook does not control all posts concerning the sale of weapons; rather, the company deletes some based on its standards or algorithms that are not sufficiently clear.

Telegram, on the other hand, allows its groups and channels to sell arms in complete freedom without addressing them in any manner. Thus the majority of online weapons markets can be found on the app, where deals, auctions, photographs and videos of weapons are posted freely without any interference from Telegram.


Fractured Society

Maan Talaa, director of the Research Department at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, says the security situation in Syria's northern regions is fragile, and citizens live with the threat of being kidnapped, arrested, or even killed. He says carrying a weapon is a matter of "personal safety" for people who have become accustomed to their lives being determined by the will of military factions, and with having to affiliate themselves with one or other of these factions.

Talaa says such affiliations have led to the division of Syrian society into two parts: one being weak and accepting of the de facto policy, and the other possessing power and the tools to enforce it. This, Talaa says, ”has led to a rift in society, especially in light of the fragility of the security situation throughout the north."

He explained that northern Syria suffers from severe decentralization of governance and the absence of an "even supervisory" center linking communities together. There are also inconsistent levels of action between one region and another, which prevents the interior ministry from fulfilling its role in the north, including the registration of weapons and the supervision of faction leaders who operate in place of the Defense Ministry. Together, these factors have all contributed to the proliferation of arms in northern Syria.


Related coverage:

Have Egyptian Troops Joined Iran-Backed Forces in Syria?

How Much is Iran Spending in Syria?


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