Exclusive: Arab states arm rebels as UN talks of Syrian civil war (INDEPENDENT UK) JUSTIN VELA ISTANBUL 06/13/12)
INDEPENDENT UK Articles-Index-Top
Saudi Arabia and Qatar ´supplying weapons´ to anti-Assad forces,
while fears mount for civilians
Syrian rebels are being armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, The
Independent has learnt, in a development that threatens to inflame a
regional power struggle provoked by the 15-month-old uprising against
the Assad regime.
Rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have received weapons
from the two Gulf countries, which were transported into Syria via
Turkey with the implicit support of the country´s intelligence
agency, MIT, according to a Western diplomat in Ankara. Opposition
fighters in Syria have hitherto been handicapped by a reliance on an
old and inadequate arsenal, while the regime in Damascus has been
able to rely on a supply of arms from Russia and Iran. Moscow is
arming Syria with attack helicopters, Hillary Clinton, the US
Secretary of State, claimed yesterday. "We are concerned by the
latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the
way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite
dramatically," she told a conference in Washington.
Since the start of the uprising, anti-regime activists have only
smuggled small quantities of weapons, purchased on the black market,
from Hatay in southern Turkey into Syria´s Idlib province.
However, three weeks ago, members of the loose assortment of rebel
groups that comprises the FSA said they had received multiple
shipments of arms including Kalashnikov assault rifles, BKC machine
guns, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank weaponry from Gulf
countries and that Turkey was assisting in the delivery of the
"The Turkish government helped us to be armed," said one member of
the FSA living in the Turkey-Syria border area. He claimed that the
weapons had arrived at a Turkish port via ship and were then driven
to the border without interference from Turkish authorities.
Saudi officials have in the past made clear their feeling that the
rebels should be armed, with Saudi King Abdullah saying dialogue
An Ankara-based Western diplomat, who spoke on a condition of
anonymity, confirmed that the delivery of "light weapons" to the
rebels was a "recent development", one that involved unmarked trucks
transporting the weapons to the border for rebel groups. "There are
arms coming in with the knowledge of the Turks," he said. The Syrian
National Council (SNC), the main umbrella organisation of groups
opposed to the regime, vetted the consignment.
The SNC is seen as having lost nearly all of its legitimacy with
Syrian activists inside the country after failing to unite the
fractured opposition. Yet, it appears that Turkey insisted the SNC
vouch for the specific FSA groups that would receive the weapons
before allowing the arms to cross the border.
"Officially, they are not going to admit it," the diplomat said.
However, the SNC are "their guys", he said, referring to MIT. The
vetting process was aimed at preventing the weapons from falling into
the hands of Islamic extremists. Yet, the diplomat voiced concerns
that, in practice, the weapons have only been delivered to rebels
sympathetic to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the dominant group
within the SNC. "Only Muslim Brother groups are getting weapons," he
said. Activists along the border not affiliated with the Muslim
Brotherhood said they had not heard of the weapons being delivered
until just a few days ago
However, the true strength of the Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria is
still debated. The diplomat added that the SNC was "finished" due to
pervasive in-fighting and that the rebels – who have become the
dominant force in the revolution – "might grow a beard" to attract
the attention of wealthy religious benefactors for a conflict he
characterised as a "civil war".
Saudi and Qatari officials did not return requests for comment. At
a "friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia in February, the Saudi
delegation walked away from proceedings, warning that firmer action
was needed. Before leaving, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud
al-Faisal, described the arming of the Syrian rebels as "an excellent
A Turkish official said: "Turkey is not providing arms to anybody,
nor sending armed elements to any neighbouring country, including
Syria." He also reiterated that Western countries were still only
providing "non-lethal" aid.
While it has hosted members of the FSA in refugee camps in Hatay,
Turkey has been hesitant to directly involve itself in the conflict.
However, following several cross-border shootings and reports that
the regime is supporting Kurdish militants who have engaged in a 30-
year conflict with Turkey, the country is changing course, said
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East
"Assad did not implement the Annan plan at all, that´s the biggest
thing," he said. "Turkey can see exactly the hurricane that is
Mr Tabler said videos uploaded to the internet showed more regime
tanks were being destroyed, but cautioned that the weapons would not
decisively turn the tide of the conflict. "These weapons are helping
harass the regime forces, but these alone are not enough to bring
down the regime," he said.
A rebel officer said their forces now control much of Bab al-Hawa, a
Syrian town with a border gate to Turkey, and that having received
the weapons and communications equipment, were preparing for an
offensive in the coming days.
Middle East: Where they stand on Syria
The uprising against Assad has spilled into Lebanon several times
this year, raising fears of renewed sectarian and ethnic strife in
Syria´s smaller neighbour which for decades has been the battleground
for a proxy war that pits Iran and Syria against Israel.
The kingdom seems to reckon that toppling the Assad regime in an
effort to curtail Iranian influence is worth the risk of
intervention. Riyadh led efforts to create a formalised pay structure
for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and is now understood to be shipping
arms to the rebels.
Another anti-Iran Gulf state, Qatar also calculates that the benefit
of removing Assad outweighs the risk of intervening. Along with Saudi
Arabia, the country is now understood to be shipping weapons to the
rebels. Syrian expatriates living in Doha are also said to be
funnelling millions of dollars to the FSA.
Erstwhile ally Turkey turned on President Assad´s regime last August
after repeated calls for reform and dialogue with the rebels went
unheeded. Turkey closed its embassy in Damascus in March and began co-
ordinating diplomatic support for the Syrian opposition movement in
Syria´s closest ally in the region denies that it is aiding Assad´s
forces with advisers, riot gear and surveillance equipment, but last
month a top Iranian general, in an apparent slip-up during an
interview, seemed to unwittingly reveal that crack Iranian troops had
entered the country.
Baghdad voted to expel Syria from the Arab League despite its links
to the pro-Assad government in Tehran. In an inversion of events
during the US occupation of Iraq, weapons and militants are
travelling north into Syria as refugees flood south.
Israel broke a year of official silence this week to condemn the
state-sponsored "genocide" in Syria and called for Assad to go,
despite fears that his regime´s arsenal of chemical weapons could
fall into the hands of anti-Israel extremists.
Street action in Egypt helped inspire Syrian protesters last spring
but Egypt has been too pre-occupied with its own revolution to be a
major player in regional affairs. It withdrew its ambassador in
February to signal to Damascus its "dissatisfaction" with the Assad
King Abdullah II was the first Arab leader to call on Assad to step
down, but his government fears that the rise of Islamist groups
within Syria and the influx of Syrian refugees to Jordan could
destabilise his country.
Julius Cavendish (©independent.co.uk 06/13/12)
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY