Cheg Cheg rose to become a mafia-like kingpin in southern Syria, running a convoluted weapons smuggling network that linked rebel forces, western governments, ISIL and regime forces. But selling to everyone and anyone proved fatal to him, Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh, report.
Death of a Syrian arms salesman
Amman // On the evening of April 27, a four-wheel drive jeep was speeding along the Zarib road in Western Deraa when an explosion tore it apart, killing its three occupants. One of them was Tayser Al Sharif, a man known to his family and friends as Abu Malik, but renowned throughout southern Syria by the nickname Cheg Cheg.
A major weapons trader, he was a wealthy, mafia-like figure at the heart of a complex, shadowy and contradictory network that linked rebels, spies, smugglers, western governments, ISIL and forces fighting for president Bashar Al Assad.
It was through Cheg Cheg and other gunrunners that weapons supplied by the West and Arab intelligence services inadvertently made their way into the hands of ISIL fighters.
Details of Cheg Cheg’s life and work remain incomplete and impossible to verify. Before his death, rebels familiar with his activities and the weapons trading networks he operated in were reluctant to publicise any of the limited details they did know, fearing it would jeopardise an essential arms supply route. His death removed that inhibition. The following account is based on information supplied over the course of a year by some of the people who knew him, and traded with him.
Before the Syrian revolution erupted in 2011, Cheg Cheg, a wiry man with a square jaw, distinctive white beard and thick white hair, had operated a small mobile phone shop in Naseeb, 10km south-east of Deraa city. A border town on the main road connecting Amman to Damascus, Naseeb was a haven for smugglers and Cheg Cheg was one of them. He had a side business, illegally running cigarettes between Syria and Jordan.
Such black market trading was dominated by powerful and corrupt secret police agencies, and well-connected regime officials, like Atef Najib, a cousin of president Bashar Al Assad who ran Deraa’s feared political security branch. They could rake in thousands of dollars a day through illegal cross border trades and bribes. In comparison Cheg Cheg was a small-time grafter, supplementing his income with cigarette sales.
It was rampant corruption and abuse of power by men like Najib that ignited the uprising in Deraa on March 18, 2011, and the regime’s brutal crackdown on those peaceful protests – including a tank assault on Deraa in April that year – which drove the country into a civil war, and, later, a wider, regional conflict.
With the spreading violence Cheg Cheg’s fortunes changed dramatically. By 2015 he was the biggest arms dealer in southern Syria; wealthy beyond his wildest dreams and free to live the life of a mafia kingpin, surrounded by bodyguards, throwing extravagant parties, womanising and cheerfully shipping lorry loads of weapons into the combat zone.
Ultimately, his success would also lead to his death, at less than 50 years of age, in what appears to have been an assassination on the Zarib road.
Cheg Cheg’s introduction to the world of underground arms trading came through one of his relatives, a man named Abu Barra. Also from Naseeb, Abu Barra became heavily involved in the Free Syrian Army, the loose band of rebels that took up arms to fight the Assad regime. Abu Barra, a relatively wealthy and well-connected man who was known to have strong Islamist leanings, began stockpiling medicines and other supplies, which were distributed to rebels. He soon became involved in procuring weapons, via a contact in the eastern desert province of Deir Ezzor. As the armed rebellion expanded in the second half of 2012, Abu Barra passed the time-consuming and risky business of buying and selling weapons over to Cheg Cheg.
Abu Barra’s endorsement meant the first weapons shipments handed to Cheg Cheg was given on trust, without him having to make any advance payment. That ensured he made a sizeable profit on the deal, money he ploughed back into expanding his operations.
“Weapons dealers from other parts of Syria started to use him as an intermediary; they’d come south to Deraa, Nawa and Naseeb and leave the weapons with Cheg Cheg who acted as their salesman. He’d sell the weapons and when the supplier returned, Cheg Cheg would pay him an amount they had agreed on in advance,” said a rebel who spent time with the arms trader.
Demand for guns and ammunition in the south was high and Cheg Cheg enjoyed brisk trade, selling Russian-made automatic rifles for twice the price he paid to his suppliers.
He was fastidious in paying his own bills, and always ready to extend generous lines of credit to rebel factions who needed bombs and bullets, but who were short on cash. He was, therefore, both the perfect customer and an ideal person to buy from. Business boomed. Then, as money began to flood into southern Syria from government and private donors in the Arabian Gulf, rebels were able to settle their debts to Cheg Cheg, and place new orders with him.
By 2013 munitions were flowing more freely into rebel-held parts of Syria, from Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. Cheg Cheg became the go-to man for anyone wanting to sell weapons in Deraa and the southern provinces. He could often be found in a large, traditional-style tent encampment in northern Jordan, where he would meet Syrian opposition figures and fighters and host parties.
“Cheg Cheg was a liar and a criminal, he was always collecting new girlfriends and ignoring his wife. He was certainly not a pious Muslim, he didn’t have any time for religion,” said one rebel commander who knew him. “But he was also very funny, and charismatic and although he was rich, he didn’t seem to care about money much. It came, and it went with him. He was actually quite well liked, an easy man to deal with in many ways,” the commander said.
At some point in 2013, Jordanian intelligence officers told him to leave and he returned across the border to Deraa province, although rebels said he maintained contacts with Jordan’s security agencies.
Back in southern Syria, Cheg Cheg was plugged into a well-oiled transportation system that moved arms throughout the country. Smugglers welded special containers in the bottom of large lorries, which they would fill with weapons and other contraband. Those containers would then be covered with vegetables and other produce that had to be moved quickly in order not to spoil. That would be the excuse the drivers used to get through regime checkpoints without thorough inspections. If regime soldiers did insist on searching the lorries, the drivers would pay them a bribe to look the other way. Poorly paid rank and file troops, and corrupt officers, would take the money and let the weapons lorries through.
“This happened hundreds and hundreds of times, weapons were coming from everywhere, from inside Syria, Jordan, Iraq, everywhere,” said a rebel commander.
As the war intensified, shortages of food and medicine became more acute, and demand for ammunition and advanced weaponry grew. Under those conditions profits made by smugglers rose dramatically. Food was the least profitable commodity; cigarettes were more valuable and weapons were the most lucrative. A truck loaded with food and with its secret compartments filled with weapons, might cost US$30,000 (Dh110,178) in transportation fees alone, excluding payment for the goods on board. Cheg Cheg could make tens of thousands of dollars in profit with each shipment.
“It wasn’t that he was particularly corrupt, it was just a case of supply and demand; we needed the weapons and he could get them for us. Money wasn’t the issue, we’re fighting a war, so everything gets put into that,” a rebel said.
The next major boost for Cheg Cheg’s business came when western and Arab states began to give more formal, if still highly secretive, backing to rebels, via the Military Operations Command (MOC) centre in Amman. This centre was intended, in part, to regulate the flow of weapons into the south, and to help prevent a repeat of the chaos that had spread in northern and eastern Syria, where ISIL had grown and become entrenched. Funded primarily by the US, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and staffed by military officers from those countries, as well as British and Jordanian intelligence, the MOC sought to dominate the supply of arms to moderate rebel groups. A New York Times report recently revealed that a classified operation was run by the CIA under the code name Timber Sycamore.
Groups of moderate rebels received special military training in Jordan or Saudi Arabia, and were supplied with small arms, mortars, large calibre machine gun ammunition, night vision goggles, anti-tank missiles and pickup trucks.
Rather than hurt Cheg Cheg’s business, the involvement of the MOC merely added another source of weaponry for him. MOC-supplied rebels would often sell a portion of the weapons they had been given to Cheg Cheg, to raise cash to pay fighters or to fund purchases of other munitions they lacked. For example, the MOC might provide a rebel faction with mortar bombs, but not give them enough 14.5mm heavy machine gun bullets; if so, they would arrange an exchange with Cheg Cheg.
“Cheg Cheg became a mini-MOC, he was the president of arms dealers,” said a rebel commander. “But he was in many ways better than the real MOC, which was very slow to get us supplies, even if we were in the middle of a battle and couldn’t afford to wait. If you put in an order with Cheg Cheg, he would get you what you needed that day, or the next day, and you’d just pay him back later, when you got more money.”
The rapid supply service offered by Cheg Cheg was critical in rebel advances in the south, which saw them push up to the strategic town of Sheikh Miskeen by 2014, and seize control of a major regime military base, Brigade 52, in the summer of 2015.
“Without Cheg Cheg, we would never have made it as far as we have, there are many battles he played an important role,” said a leading rebel logistician.
Cheg Cheg’s connections with other arms dealers in Syria, and the region, meant the MOC-supplied weapons, given to the rebels who then traded with him, could have ended up anywhere in Syria, including with ISIL.
Among Cheg Cheg’s customers were Bedouin traders in Lejat, a barren volcanic plain 40km north-east of Deraa city that opens out into Syria’s ISIL-controlled eastern desert regions. The Bedouin traders, known locally as “The Birds”, had strong, pragmatic business ties with ISIL, acting as intermediaries for weapons purchases. Rebels familiar with the trading network said ISIL would place orders using WhatsApp and the Lejat Bedouin would make the appropriate purchases from Cheg Cheg and other, smaller arms dealers in the south.
“A representative of ISIL would come with a broker from Lejat to see what weapons they needed, they would make the arrangements, the broker would take a fee and help arrange the shipment. From there, there was a supply line running to Hassakeh and Deir Ezzor. There was a triangle, connecting Jordan, Iraq and Syria, where weapons move easily,” said a rebel field commander. The commander described being present for an arms deal in Lejat in the summer of 2015, and seeing missiles traded to a dealer who was working on behalf of ISIL.
While it has not been possible to independently track specific weapons, two well-connected rebel commanders said they were certain MOC materiel had, via Cheg Cheg and the Lejat dealers, ended up with ISIL. Conflict Armament Research, a UK-based weapons monitoring organisation, has found arms supplied by the rebels’ western and Arab backers in ISIL hands.
“Cheg Cheg didn’t trade directly with ISIL, there is no proof that he ever dealt directly with ISIL but we are certain he sold to the people who were supplying ISIL,” said a rebel commander who knew Cheg Cheg. “He did it for the money. He didn’t have to ask where the weapons were going.”
Another rebel field commander said Cheg Cheg knew the weapons were ultimately going to ISIL. “Cheg Cheg didn’t care too much who the buyer was, he just sold,” the commander said.
Customers not enemies
In reality there were, however, limitations on who Cheg Cheg would or could accept as customers. When the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade and Harakat Al Muthanna, two ISIL-affiliated factions with strong roots in southern Syria, emerged as significant powers, he came under intense pressure from MOC-backed rebels, and regional intelligence services, not to supply them with weapons. Jordan, alarmed at the rise of radical factions on its border, used its connections with Cheg Cheg to tell him, in what rebels said were no uncertain terms, not to trade with ISIL.
Cheg Cheg’s access to weapons had served as a protective shield. Whatever any of the rebel factions thought of him, he was critical in getting arms into the southern Syria and was, therefore, untouchable. “He had no enemies, only customers, he was indispensable to us,” a rebel fighter said. That changed when he began to refuse to sell munitions to the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade and Harakat Al Muthanna, which, by March 2016, were under assault from the MOC-backed rebels. Cheg Cheg was, in fact, supplying the groups attacking the ISIL affiliates.
That seems to have sealed his fate. The bomb that killed Cheg Cheg appears to have been planted in the road between the villages of Mzeireib and Kharab Al Shahem, and carefully detonated when his jeep passed by. Rebels believe the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which has a reputation for assassinating its opponents, carried out the attack.
Cheg Cheg’s death has dealt a significant blow to rebel factions who now have to deal with multiple, smaller arms dealers in the search for weaponry, a logistical headache they are ill equipped to deal with. In future battles with the regime, they are more likely to have trouble accessing urgent resupplies.
But it will not change the fact Syria is awash with weapons, something Cheg Cheg helped facilitate.
“There are so many guns in Syria now, even babies have them. The first thing a child here learns isn’t to say mummy or daddy; they learn how to load a rifle,” a rebel commander said.