JABAL AL-ZAWIYA, Syria — At the Free Syrian Army base here, a group of men led a nervous prisoner from his cell to a car waiting outside. A few hours later, the rebels returned alone, with a trunkload of weapons.
As they loaded the store room with new bullets and rocket-propelled grenades, Hamza Fatahallah, an army defector who joined the Free Syrian Army nine months ago, described the transaction that had taken place.
“We have caught many army prisoners,” he said. “We send them back home for a small amount of money on the condition they do not return to the regime. We use the money to buy weapons.”
For the release of this prisoner, Ahmed Haseeba, the group received $500. With this money, Fatahallah said they were able to buy ammunition from their main supplier: Syria’s national army, also known as the enemy.
This strange cycle of exchanging prisoners for weapons has been playing out between rebel forces and President Bashar al-Assad’s army since the beginning of the revolution.
Fatahallah estimated that his village purchased 40 percent of their weapons from the regime. Prisoner exchanges have so far contributed almost $80,000 toward weapons purchases, he said. And they obtain an additional 50 percent of their weapons during battle. The remaining 10 percent are donated and smuggled from outside the country, or are purchased from private merchants, mostly from Iraq.
Occasionally, prisoners are also exchanged directly for weapons, Fatahallah said. They have received up to two Kalashnikov rifles in exchange for a prisoner in the past.
For the regime, or at least the duplicitous members of it, supplying the enemy is a big business. Government officers also sell Kalashnikov bullets, which typically sold for less than 40 cents before the uprising, for about $4 each, according to Ahmed Al Sheikh, the leader of the armed opposition in Jabal al-Zawiya. He leads about 6,000 men from eight battalions that are collectively known as the Sham Falcons.