Syrian rebels receive UK funding, but no weapons

Despite the West's reluctance to arm the opposition, rebels have made strategic gains in recent weeks. But are their advances part of the Army's strategy to wear the rebels down?

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
A Free Syrian Army fighter fires an anti-aircraft gun as a Syrian Air Force fighter bomber fires rockets during an air strike in the village of Tel Rafat, some 23 miles north of Aleppo, August 9.

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The British government announced today that it would provide the Syrian rebels with $5 million to buy communications equipment and medical supplies, but the money cannot be used for weapons the rebel forces have repeatedly requested.

Despite the West's reluctance to directly arm the opposition, rebels have made strategic gains in recent weeks, both on the ground and in forcing a change in the way the Syrian Army fights back.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the funds would be used for things like satellite phones, medical kits, and generators, but was insistent that none of it would go toward weapons, the Associated Press reports. He also said that his government would increase its contact with the opposition's political arm to help it prepare for a possible post-Assad Syria. That preparation may be a response to important but subtle rebel gains in recent weeks.

Reuters reports that the drawn-out nature of the battle for Aleppo – and the regime's apparent reluctance to sweep in, overrun the rebels, and massacre residents – have raised speculation that the Syrian Army no longer has enough troops with the skills or morale to do the job.

Analysts acknowledged there could be other reasons: The Army's strategy may be to wear down the rebels and exhaust their ammunition supplies with shelling before going in on foot, it could be afraid of provoking outside intervention by demolishing the city, and it could be trying to figure out how to use its heavy weapons, which need open space to operate, in the rubble-strewn city streets.

But they also said that a fear of defections may be driving the reluctance to move into the city streets, where abandonment would be easier.  

"On paper, the Syrian army is 200,000 strong," said David Hartwell, Middle East analyst at IHS Jane's.

"But around 170,000 of them are conscripts. They may be between a rock and a hard place, unable to defect but also unwilling to fight – and the Assad regime may not be willing to risk trying to use them."

Rebels who have defected from the army say that the front line is usually manned by Sunni Muslims who may be having a moral crisis about firing on their own people.

The Guardian posited yesterday that rebel troops may be approaching parity with regime forces in terms of capability, if not actual troop numbers or weapon and tank supplies. "We did not have the experience to lay explosives, or any coherent leadership … but this is now changing," rebel fighter Khaldoun al-Omar, told the newspaper. "The battles are looking more like warfare between two armies, even though they far outgun us."

"My sense is that the military balance is shifting," said Jeffrey White, a former US intelligence officer who now comments on Syria for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"People are always looking for the mythical turning point in Syria. There has not been a decisive moment but there has been a change."

White, like others, believes that one decisive factor has been improvements by the FSA's fighters in using what weapons are easily available to them, captured or bought from the army, and improvements in the quality of their leadership despite continued heavy losses among leaders.

"What they have got – like small arms and RPGs – they are using much more effectively," he said. "They are also using captured anti-aircraft systems like the ZU-23s and Dushkas much better."

As a result, Syrian Army casualties are climbing. Regime troops are increasingly relying on air power until the last few days of a fight in order to avoid mass casualties and defections, the Guardian reports. Anti-aircraft weapons would be a true game changer for the rebels, but other countries, fearful they could end up in the wrong hands, seem wary to supply something so powerful.

Also helping the rebels is their control of more and more rural areas, giving them broad swathes of territory through which they can freely transport weapons, food, fuel, and troops. 

According to The Wall Street Journal, rebels now hold their "first substantial enclave of the 17-month uprising": the countryside between Aleppo and the Turkish border, giving them some 30 miles free of government troops. A similar enclave was crucial for Libyan rebels in their own uprising.

Now that they can operate openly in that territory, rebels have been forming de facto local governments and restoring order to the region. Turkey has become more willing to allow people, goods, and weapons across its border now that some modicum of governance is in place.

For fighters desperately trying to keep up supplies of food, fuel and weapons, the ability to freely cross the Turkish border and move between villages without fear of encountering regime forces is a dramatic change.

Earlier in the conflict, supplies were ferried across the Turkish border by horse, or on foot, by smugglers traversing muddy trails while dodging Turkish and Syrian border guards. A local fighter in Azzaz who said he helped smuggle in local rebels' first rocket propelled grenades earlier this year said it took them weeks to negotiate the treacherous route through regime-controlled territory for just two RPGs.

Now, such supply shipments can make the run from the Turkish border to the front line in Aleppo in about 90 minutes.

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