Rebel forces armed by wealthy exiles

Antakya, southern Turkey

As Syria slides towards a civil war, a wealthy Syrian exile is racing to provide additional arms and ammunition to the loosely organised bands of rebels fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Abu Qotaiba, a nom de guerre, has lived for the past 19 years in a wealthy Gulf country. He told The Independent he was buying weapons from arms dealers in Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan and sending them into Syria, despite the cost of an AK-47 rising from about $300 to about $1,500. "Now is a chance for [dealers] to sell them at a high price," Abu Qotaiba said.

Earlier this week, US Senator John McCain told reporters that there were ways to get weapons to the Syrian opposition without direct US involvement. "People that are being massacred deserve to have the ability to defend themselves," he said.

Others have cautioned that providing arms risks fanning the flames of civil war. Yet, Abu Qotaiba says the time for only peaceful protests is over. A few weeks ago, he and a group of Syrians travelled to Libya and secured a large cache of assault rifles, ammunition, some rockets and body armour. "Wherever there are the weapons we can use to defend ourselves, we will use them," he said. "If no one helps us we will try to overthrow him [Assad] no matter how much it costs. We will defend ourselves."

The FSA has proved successful at getting hold of arms, he said. Syrian security forces can no longer go wherever they wanted in the country, especially inside cities such as Homs and Idlib because some streets were controlled by the FSA. Abu Qotaiba refused to say where the Libyan weapons came from, only denying that the arms were provided by Libya's National Transitional Council. They came "through some revolutionaries," he said. "There are many Libyan people trying to help. They want to return the slap to Bashar because he supported Gaddafi. They have lived our situation."

With the first anniversary of their uprising approaching in March, Syrians opposed to President Assad have only seen a trickle of foreign aid and realise that, due to the complexities of the conflict, their hope for a quick Western intervention was misplaced.

But Abu Qotaiba is optimistic. "You see the Syrian opposition slowly getting more support from the Gulf countries and the Arab League," he said. "It is going to be like this. It will not take long for an intervention by helping with the weapons or intervening directly in the situation."

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