Syrian rebels say they fear that weapons pledged recently by the United States and other international backers will not come in time for them to make gains against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
Commanders of rebel units operating in southern Syria said that if the promised arms do not begin flowing in the next few weeks, their fighters are in danger of being routed by forces loyal to Assad, who are being assisted by the Shiite Lebanese militia Hezbollah and an unknown number of Iranian fighters.
The agreement reached in Qatar on Saturday by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and the “Friends of Syria” group, which is composed of the United States and 10 European and Middle Eastern nations, did not specify the kind of weapons it would provide to the rebels or which countries would supply them. But diplomats attending the Doha conference said Saudi Arabia and Qatar were ready to supply shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles and armor-piercing shells for use against Assad’s helicopters and tanks.
“We welcome Saturday’s announcement, but we can’t afford any more delays,” said a rebel commander who, like others interviewed, gave only his nom de guerre, Abu Diyaa al-Darawi. He said his Free Syrian Army battalion recently lost the southern villages of Itlaa and Basr as-Sham to Assad’s forces, who were aided by Hezbollah.
“Unless we have heavy arms within our hands by the end of the week, we will have lost southern Syria,” said another commander, Abu Mohammed al-Naimi, adding that his 800-strong group of fighters has been engaged in seesaw skirmishes with pro-Assad forces outside the southern village of al-Sheik Maskin.
Concern in Jordan
In recent days, thousands of young Syrian men have poured out of the main refugee camp in Jordan to return home to protect their villages and to fight.
Syrian refugees interviewed at the Zaatari camp said they were heading back because they feared that the rebels were losing and that safe zones along the Syria-Jordan border could soon be overtaken by fighting. There was heavy shelling in villages along the Jordanian border over the weekend, according to residents and U.N. refugee workers.
Jordan’s military and intelligence forces have generally kept a close eye on Syrian rebels moving across their borders, and they have limited smuggling of heavy weapons. But U.S. officials have said that the CIA is preparing to deliver limited shipments of weapons and ammunition to Syrian rebels through clandestine bases in Turkey and Jordan. A senior Middle Eastern official said last week that although most weapons have entered Syria via Turkey until now, there are plans to increase the use of the Jordanian border as flows increase.
On Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem called the decision by the United States and its allies to arm the rebels a “very dangerous” move that will prolong suffering and hurt efforts to convene a peace conference in Geneva, according to the Associated Press.
‘There is a fear’
Despite their skepticism about weapons ever arriving, rebel commanders leading fighters in southern Syria recited a wish list of Stingers, Milans, Dragons and Gustavs — brand names for antiaircraft and armor-piercing missiles.
The rebel leaders, who were interviewed in northern Jordan, said they need at least 50 such weapons per 1,000-man battalion to confront the Syrian army.
“We have nothing but ancient weapons to take to battle in a modern-age fight. We are not asking for jets, for tanks, but the weapons to defend ourselves against jets and tanks,” said Abu Omar al-Golani, a Free Syrian Army brigade leader whose troops fought Assad’s forces this month in a battle to control Quneitra along the boundary with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
The average unit of 500 or so rebels in southern Syria is equipped with light arms, such as AK-47s, mortars, grenades and a handful of antiquated rocket-propelled grenade launchers that have the firepower to blow up an ordinary car but not an armored vehicle, Golani said.
He and other rebel commanders said they have not received arms or other military support from Western powers or Arab states. Instead, they have pilfered weapons from Assad’s forces, purchased them from regional arms dealers or bought them under the table from Syrian army sources.
In contrast, they said, more-radical Islamist units have gotten private shipments of light and heavy arms from wealthy donors in the Middle East via Turkey.
Mohammed al-Zoubi, one of dozens of seasoned smugglers in the Jordanian border city of Ramtha, said ordinary pickup trucks and open borders could facilitate the supply of thousands of rockets to rebel fighters in the southern Syrian city of Daraa — as soon as they get the green light and the weapon shipments.
“If they open the borders, Jordan could be the weapons entry point for all of Syria,” Zoubi, 45, said, adding that gunrunning into Syria has been all but “stamped out” because of tight security along the border.
Because of their inability to feed or equip fighters, rebel officials said, they are rapidly losing ground to well-funded Islamist militias such as Jabhat al-Nusra.
A Syrian Free Army commander who defected from Assad’s army and is a self-proclaimed moderate said 150 of his men deserted last month and tried to join an Islamist militia because they were fed up with poor food, limited fuel and inadequate weapons.
The rebel leaders said help cannot come too soon.
“Our forces are not just demoralized. There is something new. There is a fear,” said Abu Abdullah al-Saeed, a former Syrian air force brigadier general from the town of Douma, outside Damascus. Saeed defected to Jordan in August and heads the Supreme Military Council’s operations to establish a Free Syrian Army air force.