BEIRUT – Syrian rebels said Friday that newly arrived shipments of heavy weaponry could swing the momentum on the battlefield in their favor, after a shift in U.S. policy opened the door for others to send them arms.
Weapons from the United States have not materialized since the White House announced the previous week that it had authorized direct military support for the opposition, but the U.S. decision appears to have prompted other nations to boost their assistance, with new deliveries including highly prized anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry, said Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the main Syrian Opposition Coalition.
Saleh declined to provide specifics but said shipments had come from countries in the Friends of Syria Group, a coalition of 11 Western and Arab nations that back the opposition. The group was due to meet in the Qatari capital, Doha, on Saturday to discuss coordinating military support for the rebels.
“It’s not all the advanced weapons that we’ve asked for, but it is a few that mean we will be able to respond to attacks by air and tanks,” Saleh said. “The U.S. changing its position sends a very strong signal to the other countries.” CIA operatives and U.S. Special Operations troops have been secretly training selected rebel groups to use anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons in Jordan and Turkey since late last year, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times on Friday.
Five rebel commanders — defectors from President Bashar Assad’s regular army who now lead battalions in southern Syria — said earlier in last week that they had attended or were familiar with training camps in Jordan run by what they described as U.S. intelligence and military officers.
The courses, which lasted a week to 10 days, involved some light-weapons training and tactics, the commanders said. They said they did not observe any instruction in the use of anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons.
“We have AK-47s, some [rocket-propelled grenades], hand grenades — ancient weapons in a modern age for fighting against tanks and jets. We’re not asking for tanks and jets, but for ways to protect ourselves against tanks and jets,” said a former air force major general who would identify himself only as Abu George al-Golani for fear of reprisals against his family.
Al-Golani, who now heads an 800-strong Free Syrian Army brigade in the countryside west of Damascus, said the training offered by the United States in recent months consisted mostly of classroom exercises on how to treat prisoners of war, how to protect and report chemical weapons, and the basic use of light arms. “These are all things we know,” he said.
While the U.S. aid will for now be limited to light arms and ammunition, the Persian Gulf countries that have been providing the bulk of outside rebel supplies are prepared to begin immediately sending shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles and to step up shipments of armor-piercing weapons. Until now, they have largely withheld such equipment at the request of the United States, according to U.S. and foreign officials.
Arms deliveries, made through the rebels’ Supreme Military Council, could help shift the balance of power away from increasingly influential Islamist groups that already possess anti-tank weaponry, analysts say.
Participating governments have been working with U.S. officials on protocols to ensure that the weapons are distributed only to vetted rebel units and are kept out of the hands of Islamic extremists fighting on the opposition side. Options under consideration include electronic tracking devices embedded in the weapons, videotaped distribution to individuals, and a requirement that launchers be returned before additional missiles are distributed.
The new weapons could help fend off creeping government gains. Bolstered by their capture of the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border this month, Syrian troops have built up their presence in the countryside around the northern city of Aleppo and increased pressure on rebel strongholds near the capital, Damascus.
Rebels said the new weapons had already given them a boost. Ahmed al-Kateeb, a spokesman for Aleppo’s Northern Storm Brigade — whose leaders met with Republican Sen. John McCain during his brief visit to Syria last month — said the group had launched attacks Thursday night at several locations on the long, static front line between regime-held and rebel-held areas of Aleppo after receiving a delivery including ammunition and Russian-designed wire-guided Konkurs anti-tank weapons. “The situation in Aleppo is very hot,” he said.
Rebels had been waiting for weeks for the consignment, but it had been held up by the Turkish government, al-Kateeb said, adding that now that the United States has said it will provide arms, the rebels hope that delayed shipments from Libyan arms dealers will also arrive.
In an interview with al-Jazeera television Thursday evening, Gen. Salim Idriss, chief of staff of the rebel Supreme Military Council, thanked “brothers and friends” for sending new arms but called on the U.S. to “hurry” to send their own deliveries.
“We’re in a critical period when it may still be possible to re-energize moderate rebel forces back to pre-eminence amongst the wider opposition,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. “These latest arms shipments, if verified, are likely sparked by just such thinking.”