SYRIA : A Beginner’s Guide — Who is Arming Whom?

Martin Chulov writes for The Guardian: 12.10.2012 – Russia has retained its historical role as the key weapons supplier to Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the past 18 months. It is believed to have sent at least three shipments of heavy ammunition to the jointly run port of Tartous in northern Syria. Other Russian supplies are thought to have been flown in. In late September, Russian envoys around the world were summoned to Moscow for an annual gathering. One ambassador present said the unexpected presence of Soviet hardliners, including Yevgeny Primakov, meant no imminent change in Russia’s support, or let-up in weapons supplies.

Moscow has refurbished Syrian attack helicopters, but has been unable to deliver some of them after interference from western Europe.Iran is widely thought to have sent at least two shipments of weapons and sent several flights carrying arms into Damascus airport. Iran’s neighbour, Iraq, a foe of the Assad family until six months before the uprising, is understood to be supplying oil to keep the Syrian military moving, but not weapons.

Secular or “Moderate” Groups

Saudi Arabia was initially enthusiastic about supplying the so-called moderates, but has backed away partly as a result of US pressure, which stems from the increasingly splintered nature of the uprising, and because of its own disenchantment with the Syrian National Council, which is perceived to have done little with the largesse thrown its way earlier this year.

The moderates received two large cross-border supplies of weapons in May and June, but have had to scrimp and save ever since. They received a shipment of ammunition in mid-September and are believed to have been given more in recent days. Turkish intelligence still prefers to deal with the moderates.

Syrian “Islamist” Groups

The prime beneficiaries of cash and weapons from Qatar are increasingly the best armed and most organised of the myriad opposition units trying to oust the Assad regime. But they are increasingly at loggerheads with other elements of the opposition, especially those who brand themselves as moderate or secular nationalists.

The Farouq Brigade, a fighting force that emerged from Homs, is the best armed in the country, thanks in part to the supply of weapons it has received through Lebanese MP Orkab Sakr, who is aligned to Lebanese opposition leader, Saad Hariri, and worked on behalf of the Saudis until recently.

The Liwa al-Tawheed Brigade, one of the first into Aleppo city in late July, has also received Saudi help, but has recently looked more towards Qatar.

Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood movement is also backing several Islamist groups.

Foreign “Jihadists”

With the exception of those arriving from Iraq, the foreigners are almost all turning up without weapons or ammunition. Many of those who have travelled to Syria since July have extensive experience from fighting US and government forces during the Iraq insurgency.

They are increasingly being deployed to frontline areas in Aleppo and linking up with hardline elements among the Syrian Islamists. There is evidence of some of the new arrivals joining forces with the main Salafist jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusraf. There is speculation that the time for the foreigners to start conducting their own operations is near.

Opposition Military Council

The group of senior military defectors who have largely remained in exile in Turkey has received little in the way of weapons from any foreign patron. They have, however, been the main contact point for western intelligence agencies, including the CIA and Turkish intelligence, who have supplied communications equipment and tactical advice.

They have received cash from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which they are then allocating to regional councils to buy weapons from arms traders.

The council is struggling to establish a chain of command and control within the Free Syrian Army, which is heavily fragmented and unable to function as a standing military in all but a few areas. As a result, council leaders have crossed into northern Syria to establish bases. They have no shortage of funds, but resentment over the limited role they have played so far means they are struggling to win the respect of the units and villages they are visiting.