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Middle East

While the West deliberates, Saudi Arabia sends anti-aircraft missiles to arm anti-Assad rebels in Syria


Opposition fighters in Syria, preparing for a major onslaught by government forces in their northern strongholds around Aleppo, have been equipped for the first time with shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, it has emerged.

While Western powers deliberate over whether or not to arm certain rebel groups, Saudi Arabia has sent the weapons, which various rebel groups have long stated is their most needed piece of equipment in fighting forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The Saudis have also sent anti-tank missiles, as those opposed to Assad’s regime grow ever more concerned about the increasing influence of fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, who have recently poured across the border in support of the Syrian government.

The fact that rebel groups now have anti-aircraft missiles – which was revealed by the Reuters news agency – means that they can now pose a threat to Assad’s air force for the first time. Military jets have largely been able to fire on rebel positions without the threat of being shot down, something that has played a significant role in the regular army being able to hold positions it might otherwise have lost to opposition fighters.

According to Reuters, the missiles were obtained from suppliers in France and Belgium, and France had paid to ship them to the region. France is one of the countries – along with the UK and the US – which says that it is considering sending lethal arms to opposition groups. One of the factors that has hitherto stood in the way of such transfers is a concern over which groups receive assistance – a number of Jihadist rebels are now operating in Syria and Western governments are eager to avoid arming such groups.

Officially, France says it has not yet decided to arm the rebels but, along with Britain, it persuaded the European Union to drop a weapons embargo from the start of this month.

Some of the weapons - at least 50 Russian-made Konkurs anti-tank missiles - are believed to have already found their way to Aleppo, where heavy fighting has taken place within recent days. Ironically, the Russians have assisted the regular army by exporting weapons to the regime in Damascus.

Reports on Monday suggested that at least 10 government soldiers were killed when a car bomb exploded at the Mazzeh military airbase to the West of Damascus. “There was a first major blast from a car bomb, and then smaller explosions that appeared to be from rockets fired at the area subsequently,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Video: Amateur footage of fighting in Syria