Syrian rebels resting and recovering from wounds in Turkey say that far from receiving a host of heavy weapons to take the fight to government forces, they feel forgotten by their Western and Arab backers.
Some rebels and opposition figures inside and outside Syria say there has been an upsurge in recent weeks of heavier weaponry being smuggled into Syria via Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq from suppliers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The weapons, which according to the rebels are being supplied by private sponsors, include thousands of shells, hundreds of sniper rifles, as well as anti-armor missiles.
But in the verdant hills, wooded mountainsides and languid refugee camps of Turkey’s southern Hatay province, Syrian Army rebels returning from the fight to rest and tend their wounds, said they had seen no sign of any new weapons.
One rebel said less than half the fighters in his unit even had a gun. What weapons they did have, the rebels said, came from inside Syria.
“This is an absolute lie. We have not seen anything. If they are coming through Lebanon, maybe, but if they were, we would see these weapons. We don’t see them, where are they?” said one rebel who gave his name only as Ahmad.
“Every household has had one person killed or wounded. If we had weapons we could defend ourselves,” said Ahmad, clean-shaven and dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, not fitting the typical image of a rebel fighter.
The conflicting accounts from fighters in the Free Syrian Army, a loose alliance of army deserters and civilians fighting President Bashar al-Assad, suggest the number of weapons flowing in are limited and that they are only reaching certain areas.
“THE WORLD HAS FORGOTTEN US”
Ahmad arrived in Hatay this week after smuggling wounded comrades out of the western town of Haffeh, where rebels say government helicopters and tanks have launched a large-scale assault on the area.
After the tanks push their way through the town and surrounding villages, Ahmad said, Assad’s soldiers, move from house to house rounding up young men and looting their homes. What they leave behind, they destroy, he said.
From a hospital ward in Hatay’s main city Antakya, Ahmad becomes frustrated when speaking about weapons. He motions his hands emphatically to drive home his point.
“By God, we don’t trust anyone. We don’t believe anyone anymore. The world has forgotten us,” he said.
Like most of the Syrians in Turkey, Ahmad would only give one name for fear of reprisals against his relatives at home.
As Ahmad spoke, the newest wounded arrival, 31-year-old Lutfi, was wheeled into the emergency department below. Lutfi, a Free Army fighter was shot in the leg during a clash with government troops in Jabal al-Krad near the western city of Latakia.
Lutfi said he and some 150 rebel fighters ambushed around 200-250 of Assad’s men who were on their way to occupy one of the surrounding villages. Two rebels were killed in the clash and another four were wounded.
The right leg of his camouflage military trousers has been ripped off, revealing a bandage covering his bullet wound. Lutfi laughed when asked whether new weapons had reached his men.
“There are no new weapons. All we can do is attack and retreat. They are nothing against their weapons,” he said.
ONLY 40 PERCENT HAVE WEAPONS
Some 45 km (30 miles) south of Antakya only minutes from the Syrian border, Nasim, another rebel stands outside the Yayladagi refugee camp – tents erected inside an old, derelict tobacco factory that now serves as his temporary home.
Like at the others camps scattered around Hatay and further to the east, here fighters come to recoup with comrades or family members. Syrians are free to enter and leave the camp but access to the media is restricted.
Nasim says he regularly crosses back into Syria to smuggle food and blankets to fighters stationed inside but said he had not seen any new weapons cross from Turkey into Syria and that all the weapons he had seen had been acquired in the country.
“Three months ago I heard that Arab countries were going to send us money or weapons but I have not seen anything. Not one country has sent us money or weapons,” said Nasim, a short, stocky, scruffily dressed man in his 30s with a full black beard.
“The only weapons we get are by pooling our money together and buying them in Syria, or someone who supports us will come and give us their hunting rifle or something. Sometimes soldiers from the army sell us weapons,” he said.
Only around 40 percent of his unit even had a weapon, Nasim said, “and these are light weapons. Assad is hitting us with tanks.”
Some 40 rebels and activists who spoke to Reuters this week all said that apart from a small number of light weapons which had been bought on the black market, they had not seen any weapons smuggled to Syria through Turkey.
While Turkey has thrown its support behind Assad’s opposition, has called for the Syrian leader to step down and given sanctuary to senior defected Syrian army officers, it has opposed any outside military intervention in its neighbor.
Turkish officials say Ankara is not arming the rebels and have denied reports that weapons from other countries are being smuggled over Turkish territory.
Corroborating accounts of what is happening inside Syria is difficult because the government tightly restricts foreign media access. Most rebels also cross into Syria during darkness and Turkish security forces do not allow media near informal border crossings.
But for the rebels it does not matter where the weapons originate or how they get there, as long as they come.
“Wherever they come from it does not matter. We want weapons. We want to be able to defend our women and our families. We don’t want money, just weapons,” said Omar, another rebel smuggler at Yayladagi.