ANTAKYA, Turkey — A surge of rebel advances in Syria is being fueled at least in part by an influx of heavy weaponry in a renewed effort by outside powers to arm moderates in the Free Syrian Army, according to Arab and rebel officials.
The new armaments, including anti-tank weapons and recoilless rifles, have been sent across the Jordanian border into the province of Daraa in recent weeks to counter the growing influence of Islamist extremist groups in the north of Syria by boosting more moderate groups fighting in the south, the officials say.
The arms are the first heavy weapons known to have been supplied by outside powers to the rebels battling to topple President Bashar al-Assad and his family’s four-decade-old regime since the Syrian uprising began two years ago.
The officials declined to identify the source of the newly provided weapons, but they noted that the countries most closely involved in supporting the rebels’ campaign to oust Assad have grown increasingly alarmed at the soaring influence of Islamists over the fragmented rebel movement. They include the United States and its major European allies, along with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two countries most directly involved in supplying the rebels. Security officials from those nations have formed a security coordination committee that consults regularly on events in Syria, they said.
Although the Obama administration continues to refuse to directly arm the rebels, the administration has provided intelligence assistance to those who are involved in the supplies, and it also helps vet opposition forces. U.S. officials declined to comment on the new armaments.
The goal of these renewed deliveries, Arab and rebel officials said, is to reverse the unintended effect of an effort last summer to supply small arms and ammunition to rebel forces in the north, which was halted after it became clear that radical Islamists were emerging as the chief beneficiaries.
“The idea was to get heavier stuff, intensify supply and make sure it goes to the good guys,” said an Arab official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation. “If you want to weaken al-Nusra, you do it not by withholding [weapons] but by boosting the other groups.”
Louay al-Mokdad, the political and media coordinator for the Free Syrian Army, confirmed that the rebels have procured new weapons donated from outside Syria, rather than bought on the black market or seized during the capture of government facilities, the source of the vast majority of the arms that are in the hands of the rebels. But he declined to say who was behind the effort.
Another coordinator for the Free Syrian Army, whose units have received small quantities of donated weaponry in the past two weeks, said that as much as empowering moderates, the goal of the supplies also is to shift the focus of the war away from the north toward the south and the capital, Assad’s stronghold. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed so far in the conflict, which has thus far frustrated all attempts by the international community to broker a diplomatic settlement.
The shift was prompted by the realization that rebel gains across the north of the country over the past year were posing no major threat to the regime in Damascus, said Saleh al-Hamwi, who coordinates the activities of rebel units in the province of Hama with others around the country. But the province of Daraa controls a major route to the capital and is far closer.
“Daraa and Damascus are the key fronts on the revolution, and Damascus is where it is going to end,” he said.
Such is the secrecy surrounding the effort, however, that even those receiving the weapons can’t say with certainty who is supplying them, he said, though it is widely assumed that they are being provided by Saudi Arabia, with the support of its Arab, U.S. and European allies.
“All we can say for sure is that there are some new weapons coming across the border in the south, they are coming with high secrecy and they’re only going to groups that they want,” he said.
The Jordanian government denied any role. There has, however, been a rise in the smuggling of small arms, mostly automatic rifles, across Jordan’s border with Syria, and “Jordan is actively trying to prevent this rise in smuggling,” government spokesman Samih Maytah said.
The snowball effect
Despite the secrecy however, the influx was publicized this month by Eliot Higgins, a British blogger who uses the name Brown Moses and who tracks rebel activity by watching videos rebel units post on YouTube.
In a series of blogs, he noted the appearance in rebel hands of new weapons that almost certainly could not have been captured from government arsenals. They include M-79 anti-tank weapons and M-60 recoilless rifles dating back to the existence of Yugoslavia in the 1980s that the Syrian government does not possess.
He also noted that most of the recipients of the arms appear to be secular or moderate Islamist units of the Free Syrian Army. In a sign of how organized the effort is, he said, one of the recent videos shows members of the local Fajr al-Islam brigade teaching other rebels how to use some of the new weapons.
The items appear to have already begun influencing the course of the war, he said. They have contributed to a sharp escalation of fighting in the Daraa area this year in which opposition fighters have overrun government bases, including several checkpoints along the Jordanian border, a key but long-neglected front.
That, in turn, has enabled the rebels armed with the new equipment to seize weapons and ammunition from captured government facilities, giving them clout over other small groups, mimicking the pattern observed in northern Syria, where the ascendancy of Islamist extremists has snowballed into soaring influence as their military victories mount.
“It’s like what happened with the jihadi groups in Aleppo when they started capturing all these bases and getting the best gear,” he said. “You could call it the Aleppo-ization of Daraa.”
The M-79 anti-tank weapons in particular appear to be giving the rebels new confidence to attack government positions and armor, said Jeff White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who says he also noted the unexpected appearance of the weapons in rebel videos several weeks ago.
“This isn’t a silver bullet that’s going to dramatically shift the equation, but it’s allowing them to inflict more damage on regime forces, and it’s allowing them to have more successes,” he said. “They’re the right kind of weapons, and they’re what the rebels have been asking for.”
To what effect?
It seems unlikely, however, that the influx will be enough to decisively influence the outcome of a raging battle that continues to embrace a broad spectrum of tactics and weaponry, from suicide bombs to Scud missiles, experts say.
Though there have been scattered sightings of the new weapons in other parts of the country, including Aleppo as well as Idlib and Deir al-Zour, in those provinces the battle is primarily being fueled by the significant quantities of weapons that the rebels are capturing from government forces, said Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War.
The rebels have also been asking for anti-aircraft missiles to counter the government’s use of airpower against their strongholds. But there has been no indication that they are acquiring those in significant quantities outside the few they have captured from government bases, White said.
Hamwi said he suspects the real aim of the international effort is to provide the rebels with just enough firepower to pressure Assad into accepting a negotiated settlement but not enough to enable them to overthrow him. “The international community is using us to put pressure on Bashar,” he said.
Although plans for an offensive on Damascus are being readied, the rebels still lack sufficient firepower to take on government forces there, said Mokdad of the Free Syrian Army. “Even if we are getting weapons, it is not enough,” he said.
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