Published On: Fri, Feb 7th, 2014

West gives rebels cash and arms to take on Damascus


FSA fighter

The | 7-Feb-2014 |Tom Coghlan Norhan Keshik

الجيش الحر بدأ باستلام السلاح والأموال من الخليج و بعض الدول الغربية وأمريكا، وذلك عن طريق الأردن، حيث يوجد هناك معسكر تدريب للجيش الحر يشرف عليه ضباط أمريكيون، حيث تم تدريب حوالي ألفي مقاتل من الجيش الحر. هناك تسريبات على أن الجيش الحر استلم 50 مليون دولار نقداً عن طريق الأردن لتمويل مقاتليه مع دفعات جديدة من السلاح، وهذا يتطابق مع ما أكده منذر آقبيق ممثل الجيش الحر في الائتلاف السوري المعارض: نتلقى مساعدات من أصدقائنا من الدول الغربية وأخوتنا الخليجيين، والأمريكان أرسلوا لنا بعض الأسلحة الخفيفة.

The West and Gulf states are funding a new military offensive by rebel forces around Damascus in an effort to throw the Assad regime on to the back foot before a second round of Syria peace talks.

The assault marks an attempt by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its allies abroad to reassert itself after months of rebel infighting. The timing of the attack, codenamed “Geneva Horan”, comes amid fears that President Assad will give little ground at the negotiating table while he has the upper hand on the battlefield.

FSA forces yesterday posted online videos of rebel tanks, heavy mortars and multi-barrelled rocket launchers pounding what were said to be government positions on highways near the town of Athman, north of the city of Daraa, close to the Jordanian border.

The attack, involving 18 rebel brigades, was accompanied by a fresh influx of money and weaponry channelled through Jordan, where the US has established a training base for the FSA, according to rebel field commanders. The support includes £31 million in cash to pay rebel fighters, alongside arms, they were quoted as saying.

Monzer Akbik, a spokesman for the rebel Syrian National Coalition, refused to be drawn into specifics. “There are things that are better not to be announced,” he said. “I don’t really want to go into the details of funding. We have friends — our friends in the West and our brothers in the Gulf.”

He insisted that the US had only supplied “very light weapons” and had provided direct training to no more than 2,000 rebel fighters. The offensive is billed as an attempt to force change on to the grinding military stalemate after three years of war, which has caused more than 130,000 deaths and proved to be a magnet for extremists from around the world.

Both sides are due to return to Geneva for a second round of talks on Monday after the initial round ended in deadlock. The West fears that the rebels lack leverage in talks while there is stalemate on the ground. A rebel commander, speaking via Skype, said that progress against government forces was “steady”. Media reports in the Gulf quoted rebel sources as being told by US officials that they must exert particular pressure on the Assad regime before the talks begin again in Geneva.

The FSA has been seen as in increasingly peripheral presence on the battlefield while Gulf powers including Saudi Arabia and Qatar channelled the lion’s share of funding and weapons to hardline religious factions such as the Islamic Front. Late last month, the US approved a supply of a significant shipment of arms to rebels in Jordan. Rebel leaders said the switch in emphasis to the southern front of the Syrian civil war reflected less fraught relationships between rebel groups and fewer problems with the Jordanian border authorities than those that complicate the situation with Turkey. Recent rebel infighting in the north has cost more than 1,700 lives.

While Damascus has escaped the rebel infighting which has devastated Aleppo, insurgent-held suburbs around the capital have been besieged for months at a time by the regime. Aid agencies have warned that there are now clear cases of residents starving to death in pockets around the city. Powerful jihadist groups announced their own northern offensive yesterday. The Islamic Front, an alliance of factions that includes the al-Qaeda aligned al-Nusra Front, declared the start of “Operation Truthful Promise Approaches” in Aleppo.

The alliance, which has publicly disowned the Geneva talks, can muster an estimated 70,000 fighters. Its offensive claimed a significant victory within hours as activists reported that rebel forces had overrun part of the main government-held prison in Aleppo. Activists said that a suicide bomber from the al-Nusra Front blew himself up at the main gate before other fighters stormed through the breach.

The prison has been under siege for almost a year and is believed to contain about 4,000 prisoners. The Aleppo Media Centre, which posts regular updates from the city, claimed that 300 prisoners were released. Rebel efforts to turn the tide on the ground come as the Syrian Government is still uncommitted to the second round of negotiations in Geneva. The Syrian state news agency announced yesterday that the regime had secured a deal with the United Nations for the evacuation of hundreds of civilians trapped in a besieged rebel-held area of Homs.

The deal, which was not immediately confirmed by the UN, would be the first concrete sign of progress from the peace talks. “The agreement will allow innocent civilians surrounded in the neighbourhoods of Old Homs — among them women and children, the wounded and the elderly — an opportunity to leave as soon as the necessary arrangements, in addition to offering them humanitarian aid,” said the Syrian Foreign Ministry. “It will also allow in aid to civilians who choose to stay inside the old city.” The Syrian regime has been accused of dragging its feet on negotiations over humanitarian access to besieged areas as well as its promises to give up stocks of chemical weapons. Sigrid Kaag, the head of the UN mission to oversee the destruction of the weapons, said yesterday that Syria must accelerate the process if it was to meet a delayed deadline of June 30. “Time for action is now,” she said.