Do arms transfers represent breakthrough for Syrian rebels?

FSA fighters being instructed in the use of the ex-Yugoslav M79 anti-tank rocket launcher (YouTube)

The New York Times reported last week that “Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters in Syria.” The effort was reportedly known to the US, but nothing was said for or against it so that it might proceed under the radar of a European Union arms embargo on Syria.

Palettes of former Yugoslavian weapons are not game-changers in and of themselves, and the way they’ve been secured by the rebels shows that the US still refuses to place its bets on any specific group. That said, the arrival of planeloads worth of small arms is significant in that it demonstrates a greater investment in the rebels by their foreign backers. According to the Australian small arms expert Nic Jenzen-Jones, it is the quantity of the weapons that is the most significant development for the rebels: “a lot of people are discussing, ‘is x system effective against y armoured vehicle?’. What’s more important in this conflict is that we’ve seen an initial dearth of weapons and only recently have we seen supplies of anti-armour weapons significantly increase.” 

“It’s a long term thing, but I’m sure we’ll see the situation in Daraa look very similar to that in Aleppo in the coming months,” the Times’ Eliot Higgins told me, as Aleppo and other parts of northern Syria are falling under rebel control due to the capture of multiple Syrian military bases in the region. According to Higgins, the new weapons have given the rebels an "extra edge that has allowed them to start attacking checkpoints and bases, resulting in the capture of heavier equipment” from the Syrian Army.

Jenzen-Jones explained that three types of Eastern bloc anti-tank weapons – the M79 “Osa,” the M60 recoilless gun and the RPG–22 – now in use in Syria are “suitable for the type of hit-and-run urban warfare the rebels are conducting.” Suitable, but not “game-changing.”

Indeed, the conspicuous absence of a certain type of handheld weapon suggests that the supply effort is not quite an all-out effort on behalf of the rebels by foreign benefactors. “If we see [anti-air missile systems] being provided, I think that would suggest a shift in thinking in Washington,” Higgins explained, noting that rebels still mainly rely on captured Syrian Army stockpiles and a handful of heat-seeking Chinese-made missiles of unknown origin.

The rebels’ lack of air defenses in the face of aerial bombardment is partly why they have risked their columns to besiege Syrian military bases: capturing the airfields around Aleppo and in Idlib Province have reduced the scale of air attacks on targets in these places. Even if those jets and attack helicopters were grounded, however, the rebels would still lack the heavy weapons to exploit the situation.

The area where these weapons have been observed most is known as Daraa province, along the Jordanian border, and the weapons may help the rebels there carve out an enclave under their control. But where do the rebels go from Daraa, whose capital city they have already lost once before? That is less clear, because the flow of the Croatian pipeline is not and has never been a sure thing for the rebels.

A parallel with this situation can be drawn from the NATO and UN intelligence failures going into the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre in Bosnia. The international mission was divided against itself, with Western allies keeping secrets from one another, and of middlemen pocketing some of the spoils meant for the war effort. Small arms were shipped in en masse by international Islamic charities and the governments of several Middle Eastern countries with the official knowledge, (if not always actual complicity), of the US and several of its allies: Jordan, Turkey, Germany and the UK.

Indeed, the US embassy in Croatia was hit by backbiting over these arms transfers in the 1990s, with the CIA station chief and ambassador there falling out over the CIA man’s suspicious the State Department was keeping quiet about other nations’ (Iran) arms transfers in Bosnia because of an “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” rationale. 
Or rather, nothing was said for or against it because it armed a group the West wanted to see armed but didn’t want to associate with. Through Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that seems to be the policy of the US, France and the UK.

So far, no amount of pro-opposition lobbying in these three nations has led to them granting the rebels substantial armed assistance, though trainings programs for Free Syrian Army soldiers and anti-Assad propagandists are reportedly ongoing in both Jordan and Turkey under US direction.

When the US moved to reorganize the Syrian National Council as the “Syrian National Coalition,” it was thought that Washington was signaling greater investment in Syrian opposition forces. Despite rumors that the White House will receive leaders of both the FSA and Syrian National Coalition, no one has demonstrated direct arming of the rebels … though Secretary of State John Kerry has revealed that the White House is far more “involved” with overseeing the Gulf states’ arms deliveries than previously admitted. 

Though the decision to increase “non-lethal” to US$60 million and to supply it directly to the FSA is being marked as a decisive change in policy, it will be at least three months before the arms embargo imposed on Syria by the EU is up for renegotiation, with the UK in the lead to have it relaxed. If there is one military benefit from it for the rebels, it is that now they are freed up to spend more on weapons with their consumables and medical kits being better taken care of.

According to Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis, one of the main reasons the US government continues to demonstrate great reticence in openly backing any rebel force diplomatically, let alone militarily is because “the sort of received wisdom in Washington today is that Syria is going to become Somalia because all of these groups are going to end up in an extended civil conflict once they get through Assad.” Landis explains that “the main groups from the Islamic front [rivals to the FSA, and likely the preferential recipients of aid from the Gulf states] are trying to find [more] common ground, and these Salafists are willing to push aside Jahbat al-Nusra” despite a burst of initial support for it when it was designated a terrorist organization by the US. The foreign fighters’ haughty disdain for their Syrian brothers-in-arms, it appears, are playing a large part in the increasingly negative response to their presence in Syria.

The Beltway calculus is, he says, that “to pick an effective winner in Syria, you need to be able to pick an Islamist” and the White House does not think it can sell anyone in Syria that way to justify a more direct role. Meanwhile, rebel supporters lampoon the US’s hesitancy, and representatives of the Free Syrian Army openly blame the Obama Administration for holding back Saudi arms transfers to them. At the same time, the FSA leader Salim Idris, “who is supposed to be heading all of these things,” says Landis, "denies that [arms transfers] are happening.”

“I don’t think he’s being sincere, but clearly, he’s trying to make a point that this is a drop in the bucket,“ Landis added, noting that making that point was probably the driving reason for Idris’s remarks, rather than an effort to distance the FSA from the Saudis. C.J. Chivers, the lead author of the Times report, has speculated on his blog that “[t]hese newly arrived weapons in Syria may well have been intended for nationalist and secular fighters,” ones favored by FSA top “commanders” who have very limited authority within Syria. That, believes Chivers, is how the operation might have been sold to US policymakers.

The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has written that foreign efforts to influence the course the FSA’s “officers” would take as the “armed opposition” began to come apart early on due to rivalries and the strength of Assad’s military: these failures to hold group in major cities such as Homs and Hama highlighted their limited popularity and poor supply situation. Jenzen-Jones notes that one of the biggest problems (and future challenges) for the rebels has been of ammunition supply and standardization: "you’ve got a lot of different calibers, and then within that you’ve got a lot of different types of ammunition, and you want to make sure the right ammunition is available so that you’re able to employ this range of weapons most effectively.”

The Salafist Ahrar al-Sham militia and the FSA’s “Farouq Brigades” were both named by Higgins as beneficiaries of the Croatian pipeline and seem well-placed to use and distribute the ex-Yugoslavian weapons to other groups.

While they can and do work together, the fact is that they belong to different militia alliances – al-Sham is part of an Islamist coalition and works with the extremist al-Nusra Front. They have been rivals for recruits and materiel because: “the fighters arm themselves and fund themselves as individuals or small groups,” Nir Rosen observed after several months inside Syria last year. While this is changing due to the influx of new weapons, and some groups do seem more interested in forming a centralized fighting front, there is a catch. With the Islamists the preferential choice of Saudi patrons, they may be in a stronger position to spread their influence in the FSA: as one of Higgins’ colleagues has remarked that ”if they’re making ideological conditioning [a prerequisite] for weapons training, would help explain growth of Salafists" – albeit those still loosely affiliated with the FSA.