Arms supplies to Syrian rebels dry up amid rivalries and divisions

In Aleppo there is still no sign of the heavy weapons for which the rebels have pleaded and ammunition is running low

In the battle for northern Syria the most important front is far from Aleppo. It is across the border in the southern Turkish town of Antakya. Here rebels, who now move around with increasing ease, are engaged in daily bids for patronage with those who keep the insurgency running.

Over the past year, and especially since May, when weapons started to arrive, Bashar al-Assad's enemies have met their benefactors in Antakya's backstreets, coffee shops and hotel lobbies and made a case as to why they should receive help.

The rivalries of Arab and Gulf politics, divisions between the west and Russia, fear of Syria's bloody crisis spreading beyond the country's borders to drag in Iran or Lebanon all make supplying arms to the rebels a sensitive and murky issue.

Now, it seems, the supply is drying up. On Aleppo's frontlines, there is still no sign of the heavy weapons for which the rebels have pleaded. Ammunition is running low. "They are giving us enough to keep this fight going, but not enough to win it," complained Abu Furat, a commander. "I'm sure that's not going to change until after the American elections. I'm not sure everyone can survive until then."

The men with the money and influence in Antakya are envoys sent by the Sunni world's political elite or business leaders. One name comes up more than any other – a Lebanese MP named Okab Sakr.

"Every time Okab is in town the weapons start to move across the border," said a rebel colonel from the Jebel al-Zawiya region, who calls himself Abu Wael. "The problem is he is very particular about where those weapons go."

Sakr is a member of the Future movement of the Lebanese opposition leader, Saad Hariri. According to colleagues in Beirut he has been given the role of gun runner-in-chief. Sakr has become a polarising figure among Syria's fragmented opposition; those he supplies see him as a saviour; those who miss out hold him responsible for the faltering rebel cause.

Dissatisfaction with Sakr's role goes further. The US, always jittery about backing the uprising, is opposed to calls by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply rebel groups with equipment needed to combat aircraft and tanks – an issue raised by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Monday. Jordan and Turkey appear to share Washington's concerns. Confirmation on Wednesday that the US had sent a military mission to Jordan to help build a headquarters on the border with Syria and to improve Jordan's military capabilities underlines worries about possible spillover.

"It's about indirect intervention," said Mustafa Alani of the Saudi-financed Gulf Research Centre in Abu Dhabi. "The money is there, arms can be supplied. But the Jordanians and the Turks are hesitant. Turkey is allowing some weapons in but there are a lot of restrictions. People are waiting for a shift after the US election."

Another growing problem is a lack of co-ordination between Qatar and the Saudis – the likely subject of Wednesday's talks in Doha between the Emir and the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar. King Abdullah is said to be growing impatient with the difficulties of the Syrian crisis. According to Syrian opposition activists, the Saudis now sponsor only rebel groups which are at odds with those backed by Qatar and Turkey, which are often linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The Qataris are much more proactive than the Saudis," said one well-placed Arab source. "The Saudis are not interested in democracy, they just want to be rid of Bashar. They would be happy with a Yemeni solution that gets rid of the president and leaves the regime intact."

Intelligence chiefs from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and France reportedly met in Turkey in early September along with the CIA director general, David Petraeus. But they apparently failed to reach agreement on a co-ordinated strategy.

US officials say the opaque nature of the opposition and the creeping presence of foreign jihadis are behind their pressure on Riyadh and Doha. "They have both been given a yellow light by the Americans," said a Lebanese minister aligned to the Future movement. "The Saudis see yellow as yellow, but the Qataris have seen it as green. Their connections with and supply to the opposition have continued, perhaps escalated. The Americans are especially against handing out anti-aircraft missiles. They will not accept these things falling into the hands of jihadis. Imagine having to do a Stinger buy-back programme like Afghanistan all over again."

Now the Saudis are signalling that they are reaching the limits of what they will do in the face of US objections, concern about the resilience of the Assad regime, fears that extremists will dominate the opposition – as well as the risks of "blowback" from jihadis returning home.

The initial armed support for the rebels resulted in two substantial shipments of automatic weapons, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenades, delivered in May and June from Turkey. Since then, large-scale gun-running has dried up.

"The Saudis were the most enthusiastic by far about getting weapons to the rebels," said a former Lebanese MP. "They were public about it and committed. That was until July." By the middle of that month, foreign jihadis started trickling into Syria looking to join the fray.

The rebel military council, a group of defected senior officers, is opposed to the foreigners and wary of Syria's own Islamist groups, who have been organising and arming in the rural areas between Aleppo and Idlib.

Riyadh worries too about its home front, where the Syrian issue is kept alive by the likes of Sheikh Adnan Arour, a rabidly sectarian Salafi televangelist. Official media continue to bombard the public with images of atrocities carried out by Alawites – Assad's ruling sect. But non-establishment clerics who wanted to launch a fundraising drive to aid Syria were ordered to hold off. An official campaign raised more than $100m in a few days.

"The Saudis fear that there will be blowback from Syria like there was from Iraq and Afghanistan," said Alani. "They don't want chaos. They want the Syrian military to take over. The whole region wants that, including the Israelis. Everyone wants an organised structure of army officers who will keep weapons under control and make sure that they are handed in."

Now the Saudis are pushing the armed Syrian opposition to form a "salvation front" with unified command and control on the ground and, crucially, an ability to collect weapons once fighting has ended – a lesson learned the hard way from Libya. The Saudis are backing brigadier-general Manaf Tlass, the most senior defector yet from the military – from a key Sunni family – as part of a drive to win over other figures from the Syrian army and security establishment. "It's no good calling for them to be held accountable for crimes," warned Alani. "They need to be told they will get support." Next week the Qataris are hosting a conference to try to unite a host of squabbling opposition groups.

But there is little optimism about prospects for any immediate improvement. "It's all a bit of a mess," said analyst Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in Doha. "Everyone is waiting for someone else to do a better job. It can't be the Saudis or the Qataris or the Turks. It's got to be the Americans. If we are looking at Gulf support it's certainly been a big story, but that's not the reality. There's a big gap between what people think the Gulf countries have been doing and what they are actually doing. Not that many weapons have been delivered."


Martin Chulov and Ian Black

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Syria crisis: rebel commander targeted in car bombing - Monday 25 March 2013

Follow how the day unfolded after a bomb attack wounded rebel Syrian commander Riad al-Asaad and the opposition continued to reel from the resignation of its leader Moaz al-Khatib

Matthew Weaver

25, Mar, 2013 @8:56 AM

Article image
Iran backs Assad in Syria crisis and blames 'warmongering' US

Tehran officials go to Damascus over pilgrims affair, and reach out to Turkey, Lebanon and Qatar in diplomatic offensive

Ian Black and Saeed Kamali Dehghan

07, Aug, 2012 @5:17 PM

Article image
Syrian refugee children left to die at roadside, charity told

Save the Children hears refugees' horrifying testimonies of hundreds of injured civilians left to their fate amid warfare

Mark Tran

19, Jun, 2013 @11:01 PM

Syria: there is worse to come | Editorial
Editorial: Without the international will to stop it, the Syrian conflict has fuel enough to burn for a long time


08, Aug, 2013 @8:44 PM

Article image
Syrian rebels show united front

Feuding factions finally put aside differences to agree deal combining Syrian National Council with smaller groups

Martin Chulov

12, Nov, 2012 @12:04 AM

Article image
Syria: Jordan to spearhead Saudi Arabian arms drive

Fears over rising power of al-Qaida-linked groups drives move to channel weapons to moderate rebel fighters through Jordan

Martin Chulov in Amman and Ian Black in Damascus

14, Apr, 2013 @3:03 PM

Article image
Search for Syria strategy focuses on stiffening fragmented opposition

Arab and western governments contemplate backing the Free Syrian Army as hopes fade of a negotiated peace

Ian Black and Julian Borger

07, Feb, 2012 @4:45 PM

Article image
Turkey imposes sanctions on Syria

Bashar al-Assad regime comes under increasing pressure from former ally following Arab League's action on Sunday

Ian Black, Middle East editor

30, Nov, 2011 @6:32 PM

Article image
Syria ceasefire: five potential stumbling blocks
Ian Black:

Ian Black, Middle East editor

12, Apr, 2012 @5:45 PM

Article image
Syria crisis: US urges Saudis to support diplomacy to end bloodshed
Hillary Clinton in Riyadh for talks amid concern Saudi Arabia and Qatar are planning to arm anti-Assad regime rebels

Ian Black, Middle East editor

30, Mar, 2012 @4:48 PM