Istanbul: Gulf-backed moves to arm Syria’s opposition are gaining momentum amid growing flows of funds and weapons and a better organisation of deliveries to fighters on the ground.
The stepped-up arming of the opposition comes as world powers scramble to find common ground to impose an end to President Bashar Al Assad’s escalating crackdown on a 15-month uprising.
According to Syrian activists close to the Free Syrian Army, which has a military council based on the Syrian-Turkish border, brigades of army defectors in rebellious provinces have named representatives who relay the military needs of the fighters and receive weapons.
The activists say more significant funds are now coming from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in addition to a regular flow of donations from Syrian expatriates and some wealthy individuals in Syria.
Some arms are bought but there have also been supplies delivered directly to the FSA.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have said they back the arming of Syria’s opposition but until recently they were reluctant to throw their weight behind an organised effort, amid western warnings about fuelling a conflict that looks headed to full-scale sectarian war between the Alawite minority, which dominates the regime, and the Sunni majority.
Most of the provisions are light weapons but some anti-tank missiles have also been procured, the activists say.
The new arms supplies account for the apparent sharp rise in attacks against soldiers and destruction of tanks.
At least 20 tanks or armoured personnel carriers have been burnt in the past week.
“Both outside and inside, the arming of the opposition is becoming more organised,” says one of the activists with direct knowledge of the weapons smuggling, which is believed to be largely but not exclusively channelled through the Turkish-Syrian border.
Officials in Ankara deny knowledge of the effort.
Mustafa Al Shaikh, the most senior Syrian army defector who now heads the FSA military council, would not directly comment on the arming campaign.
But he told the Financial Times that provincial military committees had been set up across rebel provinces, providing a measure of military co-ordination.
His council sets out an overall strategy for the rebels, he says, but the brigades decide on tactics.
Activists say the weapons are designed to protect populations from assaults by regime forces, insisting that the arming operation is driven by the world community’s inability to rein in the regime’s atrocities.
But offensive operations have been escalating too.
“If we know tanks are going to storm an area, we try to hit them on the way. That is part of the protection of towns and villages,” says General Al Shaikh.
“The regime is killing a lot of people, and no one is stopping it,” says one activist.
“In areas where the fighters are well armed, the regime thinks twice about attacking.”
Analysts warn that a Gulf-backed effort to arm the opposition is fraught with risk.
It is unclear to what extent the groups receiving weapons are vetted, and there are no guarantees that they will not resell arms to other groups.
A range of military initiatives are under way, with some ultraconservative Islamist Salafi shaikhs in Saudi Arabia suspected of running their own network of supplies to fighters.
Human rights activists report violations by armed groups, and some activists acknowledge that there have been attacks on Alawites, the community that has provided many of the so-called Shabbiha, pro-government militias blamed for the recent massacres.
General Al Shaikh says his council is doing everything in its power to counter the growing sectarianism, which he accuses the regime of promoting by mobilising the Shabbiha.
“But we are human — we are in the eye of the storm. Families have suffered and people are radicalised,” he says.
“There will be mistakes, but we don’t want a sectarian war.”