Heavy weapons be­ing given to mod­er­ate Syr­ian rebels

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - slyl@wash­post.com dey­oungk@wash­post.com

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 in ad­di­tion to 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 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 an­ti­tank 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 Alep­poiza­tion of Daraa.”

The M-79 an­ti­tank 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 an­ti­air­craft mis­siles to counter the gov­ern­ment’s use of air­power against their strongholds. But there has been no in­di­ca­tion that they are ac­quir­ing those in large 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. Tay­lor Luck in Am­man con­trib­uted to this re­port.

MUZAF­FAR SALMAN/REUTERS

ABOVE: A man cries at a site in Aleppo that was hit Fri­day by what ac­tivists said was a Scud mis­sile. Rocket at­tacks killed nu­mer­ous peo­ple and trapped oth­ers in the rub­ble.

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