Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013

Ahram Weekly

Weapons on the way?

The West has long refused to send weapons to the armed wing of the Syrian opposition, but opposition sources say that arms will soon be on the way to the revolutionaries

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Opposition sources in Syria have said that weapons from the West and the Arab countries will be sent to Syria at the beginning of March, meaning that from this date on there will be no shortages of weapons for combatants under the leadership of the military councils and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Bassel Oudat reports in Damascus.

They add that since Russia has decided to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to the end, the opposition has no other option but to overthrow the regime by force.

Over the past year, there have been many defections from the ranks of Syria’s regular army after the regime used its military machine to suppress the uprising that began as peaceful protests demanding freedom and an end to corruption.

Soldiers and officers who refused to shoot at civilians formed revolutionary brigades that are now estimated at between 60,000-120,000 combatants. These have been joined by tens of thousands of civilian volunteers affected by the regime’s war against them.

For 18 months, the armed opposition forces have used weapons they have been able to seize from the army, with Syrian businessmen funding the purchase of light weapons.

Some Arab Gulf states have also indirectly supplied them with weapons, though not enough to secure victory. Countries in the West that support the opposition, led by the US, have remained cautious about sending weapons to Syria, since they do not want these weapons to end up in the hands of “unregulated groups”.

Some European countries have insisted on the creation of strong cooperation mechanisms with the armed and political opposition in Syria and supporting non-Islamist revolutionary brigades that could keep jihadist combatants in check.

They fear that jihadist brigades may otherwise take control of the situation, triggering further havoc.

Some opposition currents led by the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCSR) have wanted the West to arm the opposition with advanced weaponry, especially air defenses to enable them to combat regime air raids.

Such weapons, the opposition says, could change the balance of power with the regime. However, these expectations have not been met.

The armed opposition inside Syria relies on various sources of armaments, most notably what they seize from regime forces and military bases, including anti-aircraft weapons.

A second source of arms has been to buy weapons on the black market in neighbouring countries, especially Lebanon and Iraq, where there is a robust covert weapons market.

However, weapons gained from such sources are mostly light-weight. They are purchased using funds from wealthy Syrians who have suffered for decades from the regime’s corruption.

Some armed brigades also receive weapons from the Gulf states through unofficial channels. Most of these are Islamists, and they have been the only fighters not complaining of weapons shortages, even distributing weapons to others who cooperate with them.

They do not account for more than five per cent of the armed revolutionary groups on the ground in Syria.

Meanwhile, the armed opposition groups have been making marked progress, occupying military headquarters and controlling large swaths of territory and then retreating to avoid air strikes.

Last month, the armed brigades overpowered the second-largest army airport in Syria, seizing many medium and heavy weapons, including tanks and helicopters. However, they soon retreated in the face of regime warplanes, as has happened at military bases across Syria.

Some brigades have also lost the areas under their control because of a lack of ammunition and advanced weaponry, especially anti-armour weapons that can stop tanks and armoured vehicles and anti-aircraft weapons to shoot down planes.

The West has so far only supplied night-vision goggles, bullet-proof vests, helmets and communications equipment.

Despite the shortages of weapons and ammunition, the opposition says that hope is on the horizon since the EU confirmed at the end of January that it was giving a “preliminary green light” to revising the weapons ban on Syria, such that weapons could be legally sent to the opposition forces.

The restrictions will reportedly be lifted in March, when the ban is up for renewal. Sources in the opposition also say that figures in the Gulf states have decided to offer military aid in February, including advanced weaponry.

The EU and the unofficial Arab parties cannot take any steps forward unless the US approves. If the EU allows the sale of weapons to the opposition and Arab parties start supplying them, it means that Washington believes that the Syrian crisis must now be resolved by force.

Some months ago, hundreds of defecting Syrian army officers and activists in the field formed military councils to regulate the armed groups in the country and to prevent the misuse of weapons by connecting military activities to political aims.

Five councils were created dividing Syria into sectors consisting of tens of thousands of revolutionaries, though some of these have been left without any real support to enable them to direct combat groups.

Some governments, along with Gulf entities and other parties, have manipulated this situation to fund specific brigades and groups outside any recognised framework, leading to the absence of a political or military context that could influence the combatants.

The jihadist groups are particularly self-sufficient in terms of weaponry, while the other revolutionary brigades are still struggling to find weapons. As a result, the jihadist and irregular brigades have grown stronger, sometimes extorting money to buy weapons at the expense of those committed to the guidelines of the revolution and who refuse extremism.

“Western diplomats are claiming that they don’t know who to support,” said Razan Zeitouna, a human rights activist, “and on many occasions they ask to be in direct contact with the combat brigades. So why were the NCSR and the military councils formed if everyone wants to go over their heads?”

“Why do they want to keep the military councils weak and without influence? Is it for the sake of extremism and mayhem? Instead of ridiculous steps like putting the Al-Nusra Front on the terrorist list, the way to combat extremism is a clear and public decision to support the revolution and its military wing in an institutional manner that goes through the coalition and the military councils.”

“However, with or without assistance the revolution will continue. The only difference is that what the world is refusing to do under the pretext of keeping the revolution on the right track it will one day be forced to do to put back the revolution back on that track. The expression ‘better late than never’ is not always correct: sometimes people just act too late.”

International sources say that the regime is still receiving weapons from abroad, especially from Russia and Iran. Last week, Russian experts said that two Russian ships would deliver a shipment of ammunition to the Port of Tartus in Syria at the end of Russian naval exercises off the Syrian coast.

Official Russian figures indicate that Moscow delivered weapons worth some $1 billion to Damascus in 2011. In summer 2012, Russia tried to send repaired helicopters to Syria despite the West’s weapons ban on Syria.

Yet, despite their high levels of armaments regime troops are exhausted and they have lost control of large swaths of the country. They can only hold control of the ground through the use of planes, heavy artillery and missiles, and the regime needs to find an alternative to its security onslaught.

If the present situation continues, the door will be left open for extremism and terrorism to increase in Syria. Conditions will become chaotic, making it difficult to contain the general spread of weapons and the presence and strength of the armed jihadist groups.

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