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Officials: Arms shipments rise to Syrian rebels

By Jamal Halaby

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 27 2013 2:57 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Tuesday Feb. 26, 2013 file photo, Free Syrian Army fighters take their positions as they observe the Syrian army forces base of Wadi al-Deif, at the front line of Maaret al-Numan town, in Idlib province, Syria. America's Arab allies have dramatically stepped up weapon supplies to Syrian rebels in preparation for a push on the capital Damascus, the main stronghold of President Bashar Assad, officials and Western military experts say, with one official saying airlifts to neighboring Jordan and Turkey have doubled the past month. The U.S. and other Western governments are involved to channel the flow toward more secular fighters, they say. The influx appears to be boosting a rebel drive to seize supply routes from the border with Jordan to Damascus.

Hussein Malla, File, Associated Press

AMMAN, Jordan — Mideast powers opposed to President Bashar Assad have dramatically stepped up weapons supplies to Syrian rebels in coordination with the U.S. in preparation for a push on the capital of Damascus, officials and Western military experts said Wednesday.

A carefully prepared covert operation is arming rebels, involving Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, with the United States and other Western governments consulting, and all parties hold veto power over where the shipments are directed, according to a senior Arab official whose government is participating. His account was corroborated by a diplomat and two military experts.

The Arab official said the number of arms airlifts into Jordan and Turkey has doubled in the past four weeks. He did not provide exact figures on the flights or the size of the cargo. Jordan opened up as a new route for the weapons late last year, amid U.S. worries that arms from Turkey were going to Islamic militants, all four told The Associated Press in separate interviews. Jordan denies helping funnel weapons to the rebels.

The two military experts, who closely follow the traffic, said the weapons include more powerful, Croatian-made anti-tank guns and rockets than the rebels have had before.

The Arab official said there was a "master plan" for the rebels to seize Damascus. He and the diplomat spoke to the AP on condition that their identities and their nationalities not be disclosed because the operation was covert.

"The idea is that the rebels now have the necessary means to advance from different fronts — north from Turkey and south from Jordan — to close in on Damascus to unseat Assad," the Arab official said. He declined to provide details, but said the plan is being prepared in stages and will take "days or weeks" for results.

Rebels have captured suburbs around Damascus but have been largely unable to break into the heavily guarded capital. Instead, they have hit central neighborhoods of the city with increasingly heavy mortar volleys from their positions to the northeast and south.

But rebels in the south are fighting to secure supply lines from the border with Jordan to the capital, and the new influx of weapons from Jordan has fueled the drive, a rebel commander in a southwestern suburb of the capital said. The consensus among the multiple rebel groups was that Damascus is the next objective, he added.

"There is an attempt to secure towns and villages along the international line linking Amman and Damascus. Significant progress is being made. The new weapons come in that context," said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of Syrian government reprisal. He said his own fighters on the capital's outskirts had not received any arms from the influx but that he had heard about the new weapons from comrades in the south.

Syria's rebels, who are divided into numerous independent brigades, have long complained that the international community is not providing them with the weaponry needed to oust Assad, drawing out a civil war that in the past two years has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced 3.5 million Syrians, nearly a third of them fleeing into neighboring countries.

But the United States in particular has been wary of arming the rebellion, fearing weapons will go to Islamic extremists who have taken a prominent role in the uprising. Washington says it is only providing non-lethal aid to the rebels. The U.S. involvement in the arms channels opened up by its regional allies is aimed at ensuring the weapons are not going to militants.

The Arab official, the diplomat and the military experts said the material was destined for "secular" fighters not necessarily linked to the Free Syrian Army, the nominal umbrella group for the rebels. Jordan and other Arabs have been critical of the FSA, which they accuse of having failed as an effective or credible force because its elements lack the fighting skills and military prowess.

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