Syrian Rebels Say Turkey Is Arming And Training Them
The weekend before last I was in Hatay province, in southern Turkey, interviewing Syrian rebels and activists, who all complained of the lack of foreign assistance in toppling the Assad regime. Even the "non-lethal" aid that the Obama administration had promised hadn't seemed to make it through to these fighters, many of whom had spent as much as $6,000 of their own money to buy black-market Kalashnikovs.
A lot's changed in a week.
Rebel sources in Hatay told me last night that not only is Turkey supplying light arms to select battalion commanders, it is also training Syrians in Istanbul. Men from the unit I was embedded with were vetted and called up by Turkish intelligence in the last few days and large consignments of AK-47s are being delivered by the Turkish military to the Syrian-Turkish border. No one knows where the guns came from originally, but no one much cares.
This news, which has provided a much-needed morale boost to Syria's embattled opposition, does appear to corroborate a recent report by the Washington Post that the United States has been facilitating the transfer of Gulf-purchased weapons to the rebels:
The U.S. contacts with the rebel military and the information-sharing with gulf nations mark a shift in Obama administration policy as hopes dim for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Many officials now consider an expanding military confrontation to be inevitable.
Material is being stockpiled in Damascus, in Idlib near the Turkish border and in Zabadani on the Lebanese border. Opposition activists who two months ago said the rebels were running out of ammunition said this week that the flow of weapons — most still bought on the black market in neighboring countries or from elements of the Syrian military — has significantly increased after a decision by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other gulf states to provide millions of dollars in funding each month.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said this about the Post's scoop: "We continue to provide non-lethal support to the opposition. And while I can only speak for the United States, we know that others are pursuing different types of support, and I'd refer you to them to characterise the nature of their actions."
Turkey wouldn't take such a course of action without express American consent or encouragement. Nor do I think that US Senator Joseph Lieberman, who has called for surgical airstrikes and the creation of buffer zones in Syria, would indicate that the administration was inching toward a military response to the humanitarian crisis that Kofi Annan's farcical "cease-fire" has done nothing to quell unless he was fairly sure it was indeed doing so.
NATO's once-more-with-feeling claim that it has no plans to intervene in Syria might still be true. Ditto the extraordinarily uninspired G8 statement to the effect that a "political transition" in Syria was still the favoured course of action by the West. Though here it is worth noting that the storming of Assad's presidential palace by tenacious and well-armed revolutionaries, long after the three-month Annan plan has expired, is technically a form of political transition, albeit one that will leave the Kremlin disgruntled.
My guess is, it's time for Bashar to download more maudlin country music from iTunes as his regime is showing signs of wear and tear. There have been rumours that at least some members of his "crisis management cell" – the intelligence directorate heads and other key regime personnel that decide each day's atrocities – have been poisoned to death by the Free Syrian Army. (Two of the supposedly assassinated have appeared on Syrian state media to deny having been killed, but the fate of Assef Shawkat, Assad's brother-in-law and the current deputy defence minister, is still unknown; neither he nor the regime have verified that he's still alive.) Now comes this article by al-Ayyam revealing the further atrophying of totalitarian sinews: Syrian army soldiers are releasing detainees in exchange for confiscated tanks:
The two detainees, Dr. Salaheddine AlSaleh and Walid Ma’amoun, were seized by security forces during the chaos that ensued the attack on the UN vehicles on May 16. The residents have been pressuring the UNSMIS delegation to secure their release ever since. The activists say they were contacted by Col. Ahmed Himiche who detailed the parameters of the exchange. “They wanted us to return a tank the FSA captured in the fight that day.” Abou Houmam, a local activist said. “We care about our detained brothers more than anything so we accepted immediately.”
If the FSA can afford to surrender captured vehicles, but the army can't afford to lose them, what does that say about either?
Michael Weiss is the Communications Director of The Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank, as well as the co-chair of its Russia Studies Centre. A native New Yorker, he has written widely on English and Russian literature, American culture, Soviet history and the Middle East. Follow @michaeldweiss