Last updated: February 24, 2012 8:38 pm

Fears grow for protracted war in Syria

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With little hope for a quick, peaceful resolution of the confrontation between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and an increasingly armed uprising, western officials and Syrian activists meeting at a conference on Friday talked privately of preparing for a protracted war.

A leading official of the Syrian National Council, the primary opposition group, said the organisation had created a body to co-ordinate activities between the political and the increasingly active military components of the struggle against the president’s regime.

Bassima Kadma said rebels were receiving military-grade communications equipment, bulletproof vests, night-vision goggles and medical gear with the help of international allies. Western officials said they were also considering providing the rebels, operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, with intelligence as well as sources of funding.

“It has begun,” Ms Kadma said of international material support for rebels, though she would not disclose which countries were helping. “It’s coming up clearly that there is a consensus of support for the Free Syrian Army.”

Opponents of Mr Assad have increasingly turned to armed revolt . Close observers of the unrest unfolding in the country have detected the use of anti-tank rockets by the rebels but concluded that they were obtained by pilfering Syrian military storehouses. A black market in weapons has begun to thrive.

“They’ve been selling their furniture to buy weapons,” said Stephanie Brancaforte, of Avaaz, the advocacy group. “There’s nothing large-scale. There’s limited military assistance coming in.”

Weapons from abroad, including light munitions and anti-tank guns, are getting to rebels in Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deir Ezzour and the outskirts of Damascus with the help of arms dealers and political activists, said Anas Abdah of the SNC.

Interactive map:
Syria uprising

Syria timeline

This map and timeline shows the focus points for dissent across Syria and the diplomatic and economic issues that have beset the regime as the violence has continued.

“We believe the FSA is an essential element of the Syrian uprising,” he said. “We believe there is a political will in many capitals in the world to help and train the FSA. At this moment of time there is no official support from any Arab or western government. But we are seeing some encouraging signs.”

Some diplomats spoke about managing the militarisation of the opposition by bringing it under a coherent command and control structure and keeping civilians at the helm.

But other western officials said such talk was premature and risky. While they acknowledged that supplies were getting to the rebels from the west, they denied that their governments were supplying them. Many diplomats and Syrian opposition activists said Qatar and Saudi Arabia were taking the lead in efforts to equip the rebels.

What help is coming from the west is unofficial.

“There are a lot of expatriate Syrians who are based in European countries who are providing help to people on the ground,” a western diplomat said. “They’re providing things like body armour or satellite phones. It’s western sources but not western governments. It’s not organised.”

Despite talk of equipping the rebels, many worry about the political costs of directly arming the opposition. Dangers include the possibility that Iran, Syria’s strategic partner, would respond by upping material support to the regime or that Russia would become even more intransigent in its refusal to allow a UN Security Council vote against Syria in the future.

Many also worry that the increasing militarisation of the nearly year-long uprising against Mr Assad could backfire. In their view, no matter how much military equipment the rebels obtain, they will never be strong enough to match the regime’s armour and air power, while the use of weapons could justify the use of force by the regime and give Mr Assad’s allies more political cover in disparaging the uprising.

“By entering that kind of discussion, we’re entering the discussion the regime wants us to enter, which is the discourse of violence against violence,” said one western diplomat. “Where we were two months ago was creating a space for the demonstrators to go back to the streets, and Bashar put that to an end. Talking about night-vision goggles is the kind of wording the regime wants us to enter.”

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