As President Bashar al-Assad’s forces make serious advances on rebel-held areas around the Syrian capital, Damascus, and its largest city of Aleppo, Syrian opposition groups say they have lost faith in the West, despite the Obama administration’s decision last week to expand military aid to the rebels.
The international community is at an impasse over how to resolve the civil war ripping apart Syria. The lack of consensus was glaringly obvious at the G8 summit that ended on Tuesday. Leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations failed to unite behind a call for the ouster of Mr. al-Assad, or even mention his name in their final statement, blocked by Russia, the Syrian president’s ally and arms supplier.
Here in southern Turkey, near the border with Syria, rebel fighters express bitter frustration that their pleas for heavy weapons and a Western-enforced no-fly zone are still unanswered. “The West won’t move an inch,” said Mohammed Assi, a spokesman and fighter for the Islamist opposition group, Suqour al-Sham. “Small arms will make no difference. It’s too late. We need anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.”
As diplomatic efforts to negotiate an end to the Syria conflict have stalled to rigid stalemate, and the United States moves forward in providing what will probably be only light weaponry to the opposition, some Syrian rebels worry that deteriorating circumstances on the ground – the growing presence of extremists in their ranks as well as the entry of Lebanese fighters backing the Assad regime – will block any lethal aid needed for a rebel win.
Sitting in a dusty cafe in in Reyhanli, Turkey, on the Turkish-Syrian border, Mr. Assi noted the support of Russia and Iran for Mr. al-Assad and now, more than ever, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah – all of which provide the Syrian leader with weapons, financial aid and boots on the ground. He said the opposition should be allowed the same advantages.
While the U.S. has pledged around $250-million in non-lethal assistance to the rebels, about half the money – which is meant to pay for body armour, communications equipment and night-vision goggles – is reported to be stalled in Washington bureaucratic limbo. Many rebel fighters say they doubt President Barack Obama’s shift in policy can literally deliver as promised.
Mr. Assi scoffed at the White House announcement last week that it now believes the Syrian government has used chemical weapons, including the nerve gas sarin, on a small scale against the opposition, and so would expand military aid to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The U.S. shift, he said, is a last-ditch effort motivated by fear of Islamist extremists drowning out more moderate rebels. “They decided to move [only] when they heard the word ‘jihad.’ This is a dirty game the U.S. administration is implementing,” he said.
FSA leaders have pleaded with the West for heavy weaponry such as anti-aircraft weapons and anti-tank missiles, as well as ammunition. Rumours abound in the border area that such weapons could be coming into Turkey in the coming days.
Until then, an influx of small arms will only prolong the the asymmetrical conflict between rebel machine guns and regime fighter jets, according to Mazen al-Hallack, an officer and political adviser for the FSA-affiliated Syria Martyrs’ Brigade. “A no-fly zone is a necessity,” he said, slamming his fist on the table in a cafe in the Turkish city of Antakya. “We need advanced weapons now.”
Many Syrians – both fighters and civilians – fear that as the war drags on, the uprising will be hijacked by radicalism. “The longer it takes to arm the opposition, the more extremists will show up,” said Mohammad Rahmoun, a lawyer who works as a liaison between different FSA groups.
Mr. Rahmoun blames the international community for allowing the conflict to last this long. But he said he believes that, despite the violence that has torn his country apart, Syrians will still be able to put it back together. “We are not sectarian,” he added, a smile emerging from his long beard. “Even if a Christian wins the election [after a defeat of Mr. al-Assad], I won’t have a problem. It will all come down to the election box.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article, which has been corrected, did not include the word 'light' in this phrase: "The United States moves forward in providing what will probably be only light weaponry to the opposition ... ."