© The Financial Times Ltd 2015 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
March 29, 2013 5:35 pm
Foreign backers of Syria’s rebels have stepped up weapons shipments, in an apparent fresh effort to even up the military playing field in the long-running conflict to either topple the better-armed regime or at least force it to negotiate.
Fighters opposed to President Bashar al-Assad want still more arms to mount operations such as the capture of a strategic town near the Jordanian border on Friday, the latest step in a grinding and bloody campaign to squeeze the government by advancing on Damascus.
The increasingly public strategy of some Arab states and western nations of beefing up the rebels’ armoury is high-risk, whether the goal is to topple Mr Assad or merely back him into a political corner.
Arms have already ended up with extremists, while an even bigger problem is that opposition fighters are still way short of the force needed to overpower the regime’s missiles, warplanes and heavy artillery.
“It’s very problematic,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research organisation.
“Already some of those weapons . . . have been shown in radical militants’ hands. And even though the weapons are significantly better than they were before, they are still not the sophisticated kind the opposition would like.”
Syria experts, including analysts who monitor weapons shipments, say the pace of deliveries of arms to the rebels picked up sharply right at the end of last year and through the first part of this, in an intensification of a stop-start supply programme whose stuttering nature has long frustrated rebel commanders.
Najib Ghadbian, an official in the main opposition coalition, said new and better weapons supplies have started to flow into the country, possibly including anti-tank weaponry long sought by the loosely-bound rebel Free Syrian Army.
Mr Ghadbian said that there were many factors behind what appeared to be greater international willingness to support the armed opposition, including the mounting repercussions of a conflict that had already produced about 1m refugees. “One of the ways to end this quickly is to provide the Free Syrian Army with strategic weaponry,” he said.
Rebel fighters and others say the influx of weapons has been crucial to opposition gains in the south, including the capture on Friday of Dael, a town on the road from the Jordanian frontier to Damascus to the north. Regime forces have for months been striking at opposition strongholds in the southern suburbs of the capital, which are the gateway to the territories further south where the rebels have been gaining ground.
While Qatar and Saudi Arabia are widely believed to have been arming Syria’s rebels for some time, both Arab and western opponents of Mr Assad have now begun talking more openly about giving weapons in a conflict already estimated to have cost more than 70,000 lives.
The Arab League this week formally agreed that its members had the right to arm the Syrian opposition, while France and Britain have called for greater help for the rebels in the face of US nervousness about arms reaching extremist groups.
Louay Almokdad, media co-ordinator for the Free Syrian Army, said it had received promises of more international support after the Arab League agreement at a summit in Doha this week.
“They have the cover now,” he said of the Arab countries. “The Free Syrian Army is a legal army, the regime army is the gang.”
Rebels and some of their international allies are again talking of a final push to take Damascus, although sceptics point to how the regime has repelled with relative ease previous opposition attempts to capture ground in the centre of the capital.
Analysts also point to estimates that the thousands of rebels in areas fringing Damascus are far outnumbered by tens of thousands of loyalist fighters in the city, meaning that any direct assault would be likely to cause the kind of protracted conflict and devastation seen in the battle for the biggest city of Aleppo over the past eight months.
While some opposition figures say they will proceed more cautiously than in Aleppo, many rebels units are autonomous and some have already been firing mortars into residential areas of the capital. Ten people were reported dead in a mortar attack on a café at Damascus university this week, in an incident the regime and opposition blamed on each other.
“My fear is that we’re going to see Aleppo times 10 in Damascus,” said Emile Hokayem, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.