Syrian rebel fighters armed with cash storm Turkish military supply shops

February 1, 2013

The two men with white beards, wearing small knit caps and dusty purple tunics with matching pants, stood at the counter of a military supply shop.

One picked up a green and gold telescope, turned to the open door and gazed at a mountain towering over this touristy town in southern Turkey. The other pulled a knife from a leather sheath and ran his finger along a serrated portion of the blade. Younger men traveling with them milled around the shop, sipping hot tea from plastic cups and examining the thickness of camouflage vests.

The leaders of the expedition pondered, exchanged a few words with the owner, then nodded their heads and wandered out of the store, on to the next.

Back at home in Kafar Takharim — 60 miles away for those who utilize the legal border crossing but just 25 miles south for those who wander over the dividing line — their relatives, friends and neighbors continued to fight the Syrian regime.

These guys, armed with Syrian pounds worth a few hundred bucks, scouted out the best deals on winter clothing, binoculars and walkie-talkies.

As the civil war in Syria continues, refugees are streaming into Turkey. The Post’s Jenna Johnson just returned from the region and describes what she saw. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

“When new members come to fight, we come here to buy,” said Ammar al-Dabel, 29, a member of the shopping crew who was wearing gray skinny jeans and a baby-blue hoodie emblazoned with a sparkly skull.

The 22-month-long uprising in Syria has left more than 60,000 dead and forced more than 700,000 refugees from their homes. It has also been a business boom for the Antakyans who own military supply shops. There are just a handful, all cloistered together on a busy street, and the owners say they have been open for decades, mostly selling to members of the Turkish military. They’ve never seen business like this.

All the shops are packed with merchandise — teetering stacks of pants sorted by size and color (choices usually include black, traditional camouflage, hazy tan camo or bluish-gray camo), tactical vests hanging from the walls and ceiling, tents and sleeping bags rolled up on shelves, counters covered with handcuffs, binoculars and numerous types of flashlights. Most stores also carry a selection of black fabric headbands with white Arabic characters proclaiming dedication to Allah.

While running one of these shops is profitable, it’s far from popular. This is Antakya, the town that has kicked many Syrian refugees out and hosted rallies supporting the Syrian government. A portion of its residents are Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also adheres.

“In the beginning, people would walk by and shout bad words,” said one owner, Engin Askar, 32, as he leaned on a pile of green and black boxes holding rifle scopes. “They told me not to sell these things, because they don’t want to supply the war. I tell them, ‘I’m just a trader.’ ”

Another shop owner firmly stated: “We don’t work with the Free Syrian Army,” the main opposition group in Syria. He said this while standing next to a display of “Free Syria” scarves. There were also matching knit hats. And bracelets.

Late one afternoon in Antakya, three rebel fighters packed bag after bag of vests, winter jackets and sleeping bags into a small gray van with Aleppo plates. They handed over the equivalent of about $2,000 in Turkish lire to the shop owner.

Timeline: Major events in the country’s tumultuous uprising that began in March 2011.

“We needed a lot of stuff,” said one of the fighters, Lazgin, a 31-year-old pharmacist who did not want his full name published for fear the Syrian government would target him.

Before leaving, Lazgin did one more walk-around of the shop and picked up a couple of crewneck sweaters in black and dark green, along with matching knit face masks. As he paid, another employee showed a teenage boy how an electrical shock device works, filling the air with a crackling sound.

Lazgin opened the trunk of the van, trying to find a spot for the small plastic bag without everything else falling into the street. A passing car honked. The van’s back door slammed. The three beefy fighters nestled into the cramped front seat. And, with a wave, they headed back to war.

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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