Syria’s opposition has hailed rebel advances in the strategic city of Aleppo as a stunning success for ragtag forces, while the international community looked on as 300,000 Syrians suffered a weeks-long siege.
But the offensive against President Bashar al-Assad’s troops may have had more foreign help than it appears: activists and rebels say opposition forces were replenished with new weapons, cash and other supplies before and during the fighting.
“At the border yesterday we counted tens of trucks bringing in weapons,” said one Syrian activist, who crosses between Syria and neighbouring Turkey. “It’s been happening daily, for weeks . . . weapons, artillery — we’re not just talking about some bullets or guns.”
Two other rebels, who, like all those interviewed, asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, described cash and supplies being ferried in for weeks. They and others believe the money and supplies came from regional backers, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and were sent in trucks across Turkey’s border with Syria.
This was in spite of the fact that the rebel offensive — dubbed “the great Aleppo battle” — has been led and organised by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a jihadi group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
Some rebels claim that US officials supporting moderate rebel forces intentionally turned a blind eye to Fatah al-Sham’s participation in the offensive to ensure the opposition maintains a foothold in Aleppo.
“The Americans, of course, knew what was going on. They ignored it to put some pressure back on Russia and Iran,” said a western diplomat in contact with the opposition.
Both Iran and Russia back the Assad regime, and Russian air power was critical to the government laying its weeks-long siege on rebel-held areas of Aleppo. Rebel fighters claim they broke the siege on their territory when they advanced into regime-held districts over the weekend and have vowed to retake the whole of Aleppo.
They say there are strong strategic reasons for some foreign powers to want to quietly help the opposition in Aleppo.
The city is Syria’s largest and the last remaining urban stronghold of the rebels, who have been fighting for five years against Mr Assad. Without it, they could become a rural rebellion with far less pressure to bear on political negotiations that world powers hope will end the bloodshed.
The rebels’ foreign backers have grown ever more frustrated by missed deadlines for peace talks that are to be brokered by the US and Russia.
Washington set the last deadline for August 1, which it and Moscow then ignored. Instead, US and Russian officials said they were close to finalising a plan to jointly target Jabhat al-Nusra, which was al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, and Isis.
In weeks of unresolved wrangling over that plan, Nusra dissolved itself, revoked direct ties to al-Qaeda and renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. It is now credited with masterminding the rebels’ Aleppo advances.
Adel Jubair, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, has repeatedly warned that Riyadh could increase military aid to the rebels if attempts to resolve the conflict politically were further disregarded.
“A lot of money has gone in the last month to get all these [rebel] groups to play along [co-ordinate],” said one opposition figure based in Turkey. “That’s the only way you get these guys to work together — you have to pay them.”
Still, some Syria observers believe the role of Fatah al-Sham, not foreign help, explains the change in the rebels’ fortunes.
“The rebels’ problem has never been a lack of weapons,” the western diplomat said. “This was internally planned, and it succeeded not because of outside support but because Fatah al-Sham and the other jihadi groups are incredibly disciplined, with plenty of guys willing to blow themselves up at the front.”
But a military analyst close to Gulf officials suspected some fighters working with Fatah al-Sham may not have received only weapons but also training. He cited a video of artillery strikes that showed explosions timed to hit within seconds of one another.
“That is not a crappy rebel group. That’s a well-trained force. They were landing 10 shells within a 100m square radius,” he said, asking not to be named because he suspected there was Gulf or Turkish involvement. “You need someone to train you . . . in a way someone who understood military doctrine would.”
Two other opposition figures said one of the Islamist forces aligned with Fatah al-Sham had received outside training in recent months.
The problem, critics argue, is that a jihadi-led campaign has emerged as the biggest opposition success story after years of daily bombardment in Aleppo.
“Now we have to deal with a new tragedy: that the saviours of the people of Aleppo include among them a terrorist group,” wrote Abdelaziz Hamza, a Syrian activist and one of the exiled founders of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which documents abuses by the jihadi group Isis. “This terrorist group did more to help the besieged, starved Syrians in Aleppo than the entire international community.”
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