Syria rebel arms upgraded, still no match

2012-06-13 21:02

Beirut - When Syrian opposition rebels recently claimed shooting down army helicopters and hitting tanks used by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, military experts concluded that the opposition was improving its stock of weapons and communication devices.

"The Syrian rebels have apparently received advanced arms in the past few weeks, which helped them make claims of progress in fighting al-Assad's troops," said Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general and head of the Middle-East Centre for Studies, an independent consultancy firm.

"You cannot destroy a tank with a Kalashnikov," he told dpa.

The weapons are flowing into Syria via Turkey and come from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with the blessing of the United States, according to a former Syrian army officer living in the Lebanese capital Beirut.

"The military hardware now available to the rebels is more sophisticated than when the uprising started in March 2011, but still they are no match to the Russian weapons the Syrian army has," the former Syrian officer said.

In the past few weeks, there has been a sharp rise in alleged attacks by rebels on Syrian troops, mainly in the central province of Homs, which is close to the Lebanese border, but also in Deir al-Zour near the Iraqi border, as well as Idlib, which borders Turkey.

Rebels have destroyed at least 20 tanks or armoured personnel carriers across Syria in the past weeks, according to opposition activists in some restive areas.

A Western diplomat based in Beirut told dpa that the main arms supplies to the Syrian rebels came from Turkey.

Ankara has strongly denied the claim, saying its assistance to the Syrian opposition was only humanitarian.

Army depots

"We got information from an intelligence group that two ships loaded with light and medium-range weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, have arrived at a port in Turkey in recent weeks," said the diplomat, on condition of anonymity.

These claims did not surprise Walid al-Buni, a member of the Syrian National Council, a main opposition grouping.

"Syrians are being killed. Do you want us to stand idle and not fight back?" he told dpa.

Al-Buni, who lives in exile in Europe, declined to comment on reports that arms were being supplied by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who are the main backers of the Syrian opposition.

He insisted that the rebels' main source of arms were ammunition depots belonging to the Syrian army, which they attacked with the help of army defectors.

"We have two main sources of arms. One is from outside. But this is often a very difficult mission that can cost lives. The other is easier, by seizing weapons from the army depots after attacking them," said al-Buni.

He added that Syria's neighbours - Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan - were not facilitating the delivery of arms to rebels.

"Arms are being smuggled into the country through very difficult illegal routes," he said.

Political observers are worried that a growing balance of armed power between the rebels and the Syrian army is pushing the country faster into civil war.

Russia supplies 72%

"An enhanced flow of weapons to the Syrian regime and its opponents makes a sectarian strife loom larger," said the Western diplomat.

Russia is one of Syria's major weapons suppliers. On several occasions, Russia has opposed a United Nations proposal for imposing an arms embargo on Syria.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Syria imported nearly six times more weapons in 2007-2011 than in the previous five years. Russia accounted for 72% of the arms supplies to al-Assad's regime, the think-tank said in a report.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned on Tuesday that the conflict in Syria would "dramatically" escalate, referring to reports that Russia was delivering attack helicopters to the Syrian regime - a claim that Moscow denied on Wednesday.

Russia was "supplying only air defence systems to Syria," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said according to Itar-Tass news agency, adding that it "did not violate any norms of international law".

"We will not supply anything to Syria or other country to use it against peaceful demonstrators, unlike the United States that regularly delivers special arms to this region," Lavrov added, at a press conference in Iran.