LONDON (Reuters) - Syrian rebel success in capturing government armories is rendering increasingly irrelevant Western efforts to limit supplies from abroad and avoid sophisticated arms reaching Islamist militants.
Western nations, particularly the United States, remain highly nervous of weapons falling into the wrong hands, while even Saudi Arabia and Qatar - by far the two most enthusiastic rebel backers - appear to have cut back support in recent weeks.
Opposition forces clearly hope the creation last week of a new unified military council and the growing number of foreign powers recognizing them as the legitimate government of Syria will lead to swiftly renewed support and new arms.
Even without that, however, the capture of a growing number of bases from forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad increasingly obviates the need for outside support. Meanwhile, resentment simmers over what many rebels see as yet more broken promises.
The main priority for Free Syrian Army and other disparate rebel groups remains anti-aircraft weaponry to hold back Assad’s air force. With jets and helicopters increasingly pounding areas under opposition control, they also want access to early warning systems as well as arms such as mortars and anti-tank weaponry to take government forces on the ground.
So far, however, arms smuggled across the Turkish border to opposition fighters have been largely limited to AK-47-type small arms, rocket propelled grenades and perhaps a handful of small surface-to-air missiles.
Most of the heavier weapons - including truck-mounted anti-aircraft machine guns that have made it significantly harder for government aircraft to strike rebel targets - were taken from Assad’s forces.
Those weapons may be one reason why government forces have begun using Scud-type ballistic missiles to strike rebel areas, not risking helicopters or aircraft.
“They do seem to have been getting a lot more effective,” says David Hartwell, a former British Ministry of Defence official and now Middle East analyst for IHS Jane’s. “They took a military base outside Aleppo that seemed to give them a lot. They have clearly been foreign weapons coming in, but it has been very limited.”
Up until now, foreign weapons shipments have been a largely chaotic free for all. Intelligence and special forces operatives from a range of countries, as well as wealthy Gulf individuals operating perhaps independently, have cut deals with a range of small groups to supply whatever their funders felt willing to pass across.
The military council announced earlier this week in Qatar was, those with knowledge of the events say, part of a strategy to end that ad hoc process and provide greater accountability.
Whether that will happen, however, is another matter.
While the military council deliberately excluded two of the more militant rebel groups, including the al-Nusra Front just added by Washington to its list of global terrorist groups, it remains dominated by Islamist elements, some of which continue to make the U.S. distinctly nervous.
Despite deploying Patriot missiles to soothe Turkish worries over potential Syrian missile strikes, the U.S. in particular remains extremely reluctant to be sucked in any deeper. Political leaders in Britain and France appear somewhat more enthusiastic for greater involvement, but neither will take significant action without Washington.
French President François Hollande had raised the prospect earlier this year of providing anti-aircraft support to “liberated areas”. Nothing has so far happened, however, and this week’s meeting of the anti-Assad “Friends of Syria” France said it would not be supplying weapons for now.
Western intelligence agencies and their Gulf counterparts were all involved in last week’s creation of the military council. But the main focus of Western Spies and special forces along the Turkish border remains trying to track weapons shipments and telling the Saudis, Qataris and others which groups Washington feels they should avoid.
Even that, officials say, has almost certainly not been enough to stop at least some weaponry going to groups Western powers would rather not arm. Those rebels who currently seem reliable, they worry, could turn out to be much less so in time.
The risk of weapons leaving Syria in the short term, however, may be somewhat overblown. Even foreign jihadist fighters flocking to Syria appear mainly focused on fighting Assad’s forces, with little enthusiasm for taking effort and material from that fight to target the West.
“The worry would be that that would happen later,” says Nigel Inkster, former deputy chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and now head of political risk and transnational threats at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Some small numbers of surface-to-air missiles might already have been shipped to rebels inside Syria by Qatar, he said; although the key challenge was tracking such relatively small items and keeping account of their location and use.
“That would probably require Qatari special forces on the ground inside Syria,” he said.
Qatari special forces operated extensively on the ground in Libya, shipping in military supplies overland from Sudan as well as having them dropped by French and other NATO aircraft. They worked relatively closely with British, U.S. and other intelligence agencies.
Western states deployed dozens or more personnel on the ground in Libya in the final stages of that war. However, they are seen reluctant to operate on Syrian territory.
A foreign security source in Qatar said the option of sending specialist troops into Syria had been discussed for months, but it was not clear Qatari forces had the capability to operate alone.
“There is the sense from some European powers that the operation is an absolute mess, and it’s the Qataris’ fault,” he said. “The Qataris have sensed that a lot of people want a sea change in terms of how (the Qataris) are handling weapons transfer.”
Not everyone is so critical. Another Western security source told Reuters Qatar remained a positive influence, in part because it was willing to cut support for groups its allies considered excessively risky.
Some weapons types clearly worry foreign powers more than others. While a handheld Stinger-type surface-to-air missile could be relatively easily smuggled across borders, a truck mounted anti-aircraft gun would be, in the words of one former intelligence officer, “much harder to set up at (New York’s) la Guardia (airport).”
The bottom line, however, may be that foreign powers must simply accept their ability to affect events on the ground may be receding fast.
The attempt to blacklist certain groups as too Jihadist, some argue, may end up simply being counter-productive.
“With or without the U.S. arming the rebels, the jihadis are gaining greater influence on the ground,” says Mona Yacoubian, a former State Department official and now Syria expert at the Stimson Centre in Washington DC. “Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra are considered amongst the most effective... and appear to have gained increasing legitimacy.”
For those in the United States and elsewhere who oppose intervention, that fact alone is seen vindicating the decision not to arm the opposition directly. Others, however, argue the failure to do so has simply left the door open for others and that the best way to reduce Islamist influence would have been for Washington to take the lead in providing weapons from the start.
“It’s a simple consequence of us not being more involved,” says former U.S. Army intelligence officer Joseph Holliday, now Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War. “We have been offering non-lethal supplies - radios, flak jackets - but that is not really what they are asking for.”
Reporting By Peter Apps; additional reporting by Regan Doherty in Doha and Mark Hosenball in Washington; editing by Ralph Boulton