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03 December 2023

Smuggled arms boost Syrian rebels

Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo on Tuesday June 12. (AP)

By Reuters

Newly armed with mortars, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades smuggled across borders by truck and donkey, Syria's rebels are now ready to step up their fight against President Bashar Al Assad. 

Rebel fighters say they have taken advantage of a shaky truce to regroup against a Syrian army that is showing signs of poor morale, desertions and equipment failure. 

Thousand of shells and hundreds of sniper rifles, as well as anti-armour missiles, have been smuggled in via Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq in recent weeks, much of them from suppliers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, fighters and opposition figures say. 

Although the rebels say these additional weapons are not enough for them to topple Assad, they may have been a factor in the insurgents' announcement last week that they were abandoning the failing truce and resuming attacks on government targets. 
"Now the Free Army has more sophisticated weapons. We still have less than we need but it is entering the country," said a fighter in the north-western province of Idlib. 
"It still does not cover all we need because the number of fighters is increasing. Thousands of soldiers are still waiting in Turkey for weapons," he said. 

Some areas are stronger than others, with Idlib province the best equipped and organised, the rebels say. 

"It is the headquarters of the Free Army right now. It is almost a buffer zone, almost independent. Most of the Free Army soldiers go there because it is close to Turkey," said a fighter from another province who asked that his location not be disclosed.  

 "The regime cannot take on Idlib right now. It is using helicopters because it has suffered many losses recently there." 

Rebels have killed scores of soldiers, including in Idlib, in the last 10 days after stepping up their campaign. Video footage released by activists has shown burning hulks of tanks and armoured personnel carriers destroyed by their new weapons.  
"Recently a lot of weapons have entered Syria. We are getting ready and we will create a balance of horror. The days when hundreds of us are killed will be soon over. In my city we have received at least 10,000 rockets and 100 sniper rifles."

"What is left for (Assad)? Using planes? We will get weapons for that too. Nothing will stop us now. The world has decided to finally get rid of him and we are ready." 

Opposition fighters are now staging more audacious offensives on state security, including the temporary seizure over the weekend of a strategic army base in Homs province which housed several surface-to-air missiles. 

The Free Syrian Army rebels were forced to withdraw from the Al Ghanto base by an army counter-offensive - leaving the missiles in place but taking looted machine guns and ammunition.  

Rebels - described by Assad as foreign-backed terrorists - say they are ready to "liberate" some towns but are still considering whether they can hold them without the protection of an international buffer zone or a no-fly zone to sideline Assad's air force. 

Mohamed Sermini, a member of the Syrian National Council, the opposition umbrella group, who has travelled to Syria to meet rebel fighters, called for the insurgents to be supplied with anti-aircraft missiles. 

"Weapons have entered Syria recently but it is not enough," he said. "We have medium-sized and individual weapons but not enough missiles." 

Some of the arms reaching the rebels are provided by defectors who are now fleeing the army in greater numbers with heavy weapons.  

The fighters say they have now better AK47 assault rifles and more mortars.  

"Some Western countries have promised us to help with arming us but so far it is only promises," said a senior rebel who declined to be named. 

Another factor playing into the hands of the Free Army is the exhaustion creeping into the Syrian army, equipped with weapons which date back to the 1970s. 

Sermini said that 50 percent of the army's tanks are not working, many officers want to defect and some are in prison.  
"The Assad army looks coherent but it is not. If countries really care about freeing the Syrian people from Assad's thugs then at least they should send us anti-aircraft and anti-tank (weapons) which will help determine the battle," he said. 

Free Syrian Army spokesman Sami al-Kurdi said Assad was depending on a loyal core made up of the Republican Guards, the Fourth Armoured Division and the 15th Brigade for breaking into towns and cities to crush the rebels. 

"Those who are fighting are those loyal to him one million percent ... The assault units are different from the checkpoint units. They know that the checkpoint units will defect if they send them in to confront the Free Army fighters." 

To address this, Assad was dragging more members of his community into the conflict, he said. 
"Now the regime is planting its tanks around villages that are loyal to him and forcing them to take part in the fighting. He is now depending more on the Shabbiha (militia) because he knows it is only a matter of time before the army collapses." 
 "There have been lots of defections recently - before there used to be one or two defecting but now there are large numbers. We feel more want to defect but are waiting for the buffer zone in order to safeguard their families," Kurdi said. 

A fighter in Rastan said: "The rebels are now better prepared and well equipped not only to defend but also to launch attacks on the regime forces." He said the truce, announced in April, had helped them catch their breath. 

 "Whatever weapon you can think of, we have it now, except those used to attack planes. We are well equipped now and ready for him," he said, adding the rebels had regrouped after being driven out of the Baba Amr district of Homs three months ago. 

 "What happened in Baba Amr almost broke us and our young men were tired and exhausted, but now we are in better condition. We are much better now."