Revealed: What the West has given Syria's rebels

Britain has so far handed over equipment worth £8m - but can it help on the front line?

The holy month of Ramadan is over and both sides in Syria’s civil war are preparing for a new round of attrition. Now, documents obtained by The Independent and extensive talks on the ground have revealed the level of equipment sent by the West to Syria’s rebels – divided between the Islamists and more moderate factions – to equip them for the fight.

After a series of reverses in the battlefront, opposition forces have recently struck back, taking control of a strategically important military air base they had been trying to overrun during months of fierce clashes. Menagh, north of Aleppo, was captured last week after a suicide attack that breached regime fortifications and unnerved the defending troops. Two and half years on from the start of the uprising against Basher al-Assad, the most potent weapons in the armoury of the opposition in their most notable recent triumph were not tanks or missiles, but human bombs.

The best case scenario for the rebels now would appear to be attempts at a land-grab to create a position of strength before the much-delayed ceasefire talks, “Geneva II”, take place in the autumn. The alternative is continuing, relentless blood-letting, which has already cost more than 100,000 lives in the deadliest chapter of the Arab Spring.

The British Government is considering sending weapons to the moderate rebel fighters, arguing that a failure to do so would not only further empower President Assad but also weaken future potential Western allies. The bulk of the arms that get into opposition areas in Syria go to Islamist rebels, courtesy of wealthy benefactors in the Gulf, especially Qatar.

So far the UK has sent around £8m of “non-lethal” aid, according to official papers seen by The Independent, comprising five 4x4 vehicles with ballistic protection; 20 sets of body armour; four trucks (three 25 tonne, one 20 tonne); six 4x4 SUVs; five non-armoured pick-ups; one recovery vehicle; four fork-lifts; three advanced “resilience kits” for region hubs, designed to rescue people in emergencies; 130 solar powered batteries; around 400 radios; water purification and rubbish collection kits; laptops; VSATs (small satellite systems for data communications) and printers. In addition, funds have been allocated for civic society projects such as inter-community dialogue and gathering evidence of human rights abuses. The last “gift” to the opposition, announced by William Hague last week, is that £555,000 worth of counter-chemical warfare equipment is on standby.

Free Syrian Army fighters hold their weapons as they pose for a picture in Jobar, Damascus Free Syrian Army fighters walk through debris in the old city of Aleppo  

The items, channelled through the Free Syrian Army (FSA), are of use to the opposition, but they will have little impact on the fighting. Even the chemical equipment may not be of much use without adequate training. Potential users need the ability to assess threats and calculate the correct dosage for medication, along with an appreciation of differing field conditions, stressed Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, who has served with the UK’s specialist biosecurity forces and is in favour of sending the WMD kit to the rebels.

Any military aid from Britain will not arrive until Parliament returns from its summer break. Last month the Commons approved by 114 votes to one a motion calling for the “explicit consent” of MPs, in both debate and vote, before weapons are sent to Syria.

France was instrumental, alongside the UK, in lifting the European Union arms embargo on Syria which would allow supplies to be sent to the rebels. But the messages from the Hollande government on the issue have been ambiguous. Last month Foreign minister Laurent Fabius stated that it would not be possible to send weapons as they may fall into the wrong hands and end up being used against France.

French fears are informed by the country’s experiences during the recent intervention in Mali, when French forces encountered surface-to-air missiles that had been looted from Libya. Some of the stock was brought to Mali by Tuareg tribesmen who had been in the pay of  Muammar Gaddafi, while others had come from Islamist rebels who had been fighting his regime.

The French had provided arms on the ground in the Libyan conflict, airlifting around 40 tonnes to the rebels in the Nafusa mountains in the west in preparation for the assault on Tripoli. Some Syrian opposition commanders in Jordan and Lebanon have claimed that French-supplied weapons – assault rifles, pistols and ammunition – have already arrived, although this is strongly denied by Paris.

Instead both France and Britain, say they are exploring high-tech methods to ensure any weapons supplied in the future are tracked and can be de-activated if they come to the possession of hostile groups. In essence this would apply to missiles, the tools the opposition need the most to counter Assad’s warplanes and armour.

But weapons specialists urge caution about the availability and effectiveness of such “fail-safe” systems. An official at MBDA, one of Europe’s largest missile manufacturers, points out that its products do not come off the production line with such features and complex and expensive alterations would have to be carried out.

A Free Syrian Army fighter moves through a hole in a wall inside a building in al-Jdeideh neighbourhood in the old city of Aleppo A Free Syrian Army fighter in the old city of Aleppo  

Matt Schroeder, director of arms sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists, said that “controllable enablers” could restrict the use of anti-aircraft missiles, but added: “If you are really concerned about diversion of weapons into the wrong hands, none of them alone are sufficient.” Technologically proficient jihadists could, he stressed, outsmart the smart-controls – something the Pentagon is fully aware of.

In June the US administration announced that it would give “direct military aid” to the rebels because the Assad regime had crossed the “red line” set by Barack Obama when it used chemical weapons on the rebels. Until then congressional committees had blocked the sending of arms because of the jihadist threat but now, two months on, opposition fighters say they are yet to see much sign of the new armaments. In any event, US officials say that in the immediate future only small arms are likely to be dispatched and even then only after careful vetting of the groups that are getting them.

CIA officers have, in fact, been carrying out such vetting since June last year. But the political and religious beliefs of the rebel khatibas or battalions, have not remained constant. “The problem is that some of the khatibas which used to be semi-secular have now become Islamist. So it’s a question of constant monitoring,” said a security contractor, a former US army Ranger who is part of a liaison team with the Syrian opposition in Turkey.

The same uncertainty has limited the number of “moderate” fighters passing through training camps in Jordan run by former Western military personnel; fortnight-long courses largely restricted to instructions on tactics and the use of small arms. Particular emphasis is being placed on the creation of teams designed to rush in and snatch chemical arsenals. That, says Abu Khalid, a rebel officer in Idlib province, is “a joke”. “Where are these secular commando teams?” he says. “We haven’t seen them. But then we haven’t seen many chemical weapons either. Assad doesn’t need to use them, he is killing enough with his tanks and planes. We need missiles to fight that, and that is what the Americans and Europeans are not giving us.”

There is some evidence, however, of small quantities of missiles arriving in Syria for the opposition, some of them apparently obtained from Croatia in a shipment organised by the Americans and paid for by Gulf states earlier this year. More recently the rebels have also used Konkurs wire-guided anti-tank missiles from former Warsaw Pact arsenals, while 82mm recoil-less rifles have been deployed in recent gains near Latakia, a regime stronghold, and in the defence of Aleppo.

But the missiles are largely in the hands of Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The Islamists’ ever-increasing power is now a direct threat to the moderates, as was shown by the recent assassination in Latakia of Kamal Hamami, a member of the FSA’s supreme military council, by the al Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Qassem Saadeddine, a FSA official, recalled: “They phoned to say they had carried out the killing of infidels. They said they will kill all of the supreme military council.”

The assault on Menagh was led by Islamic State of Iraq and Levant which provided the two suicide bombers. “They decided to use the suicide men to save the few rockets they had. As you know it was very effective as a strategy” said Abu Khalid, the moderate rebel officer. “We believe that suicide is haram [forbidden] by our religion. But the Salafists are proud of it. That is another advantage they have over us.”

Rebel fighters in in the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo Rebel fighters in in the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo  

Somali rebels destroyed British aid supplies

Humanitarian aid worth £480,000 was seized by militants linked to al-Qa’ida as they rampaged through southern Somalia.

The supplies, paid for by British taxpayers, were in warehouses captured by al-Shabaab and it is believed they were later set ablaze, according to the Department for International Development (DfID).

Details of the incidents appeared in the department’s annual accounts.

It said: “DfID’s partners had no prior warning of the confiscations being carried out and therefore had no time to prevent the loss by relocating goods.

“While the theft suffered represented a stores loss, the property was not stolen from DfID stores. DfID funding was provided to purchase goods but no benefit was received by the end recipient due to the theft.”

A spokesman for the department said: “DfID works in some of the most dangerous places in the world, including Somalia, because tackling the root causes of poverty and instability there ensures a safer world and a safer UK.

“Working in conflict-affected and fragile states carries inherent risk. DfID does all it can to mitigate against this but, on occasion, losses will occur. We work with our partners to design programmes that protect our investment from misuse or theft.”

David Hughes

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