Syria Rebels Bolstered by New Arms But Divisions Remain

BEIRUT (Reuters) -

Syrian rebels have received advanced weapons aimed at narrowing the arms gap with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and reinforcing a new rebel military command which Western countries hope can dilute the strength of Islamist fighters.

Several rebel commanders and fighters told Reuters that a shipment which reached Syria via Turkey last month contained shoulder-held and other mobile equipment including anti-aircraft and armour-piercing weapons, mortars and rocket launchers.

Rebels told Reuters the weapons, along with money for cash payments for fighters, were being distributed through a new command structure, part of a plan by foreign backers to centralize control over rebel units and check Islamists linked to al-Qaida. However, in a sign of the difficulty in uniting disparate fighting groups, some rebels said they had turned down the arms and refused to submit to the new command.

While not nearly enough to tip the military balance against Assad, who is able to deploy air power, missiles and artillery to devastating effect against rebel areas, any significant arms shipment is a boost to rebels who have long complained about the lack of international support.

The rebels refused to specify who supplied the new weapons, saying they did not want to embarrass foreign supporters, but said the weapons had arrived openly via Turkey “from donor countries.”

“We have received this shipment legally and normally. It was not delivered through smuggling routes but formally through Bab al-Hawa crossing,” said a rebel commander in Homs province, referring to a rebel-held crossing with Turkey.

“But it is not enough to help us win,” he told Reuters by Skype. “Another shipment has arrived in Turkey but we haven’t received it yet,” he added, saying he believed foreign donors were waiting for the Syrian opposition to form a transitional government to work with the rebel command.

The political opposition will meet in Istanbul on Saturday to choose a prime minister in the transitional government, which is also supposed to choose a civilian defense minister — creating the basic structure for a future state and army.