x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles boost Syrian rebels

Rebels fought to halt an advance by the forces of Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, into northern Syria yesterday as new evidence emerged of escalating foreign support for the rebels.

Rebels fought to halt an advance by the forces of Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, into northern Syria yesterday as new evidence emerged of escalating foreign support for the rebels.

An Arabian Gulf source claimed that Saudi Arabia had equipped fighters for the first time with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, their most urgent request. Rebels said Riyadh had also sent them anti-tank missiles.

European nations backing the rebels would "pay the price" if they joined those sending weapons to Syria, Mr Al Assad told a German newspaper.

The Saudi weapons deal was disclosed as rebel fighters confront government troops and hundreds of militants from the Iranian-backed Hizbollah group seeking to retake the northern city of Aleppo, where heavy fighting resumed yesterday.

Those backing the rebels - including Britain, France, Turkey, Arab countries and the United States - were driven to intensify support in recent weeks to rescue the rebellion after Mr Al Assad's forces scored important military gains.

Just a few months ago, western countries thought his days were numbered. But last month he received the open support of thousands of fighters from Hizbollah, the powerful Iran-backed Shiiite group in Lebanon, which helped his forces capture the strategic town of Qusayr from the rebels this month.

The news that rebels are receiving shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles from Saudi Arabia marks an important escalation with the potential to shift momentum by limiting the use of air power by Mr Al Assad's forces.

The missiles have been at the top of the wish-list of the main rebel military commander, Salim Idriss. The West had long been wary because of fears such weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down civilian planes.

The missiles were obtained from suppliers in France and Belgium, and France had paid to ship them to the region, the source said.

Opposition sources in Aleppo said Saudi Arabia had also supplied the rebels with at least 50 Russian-made Konkurs anti-tank missiles in the past few days. The weapons had reached rebels fighting a government column at the town of Maaret Al Arteek north of Aleppo, scene of major fighting in recent days.

Western countries have said helping the rebels on the ground is necessary to restore military balance after Mr Al Assad's recent gains. Previously, the West provided only "non-lethal" aid.

After winning the battle for the strategic town of Qusayr this month, Mr Al Assad's forces have announced an offensive in the mainly rebel-held north near Syria's biggest city, Aleppo.

Also yesterday, a car bomb killed at least 10 Syrian soldiers and wounded 10 others in an overnight attack near a military airport on the outskirts of Damascus, a monitoring group said yesterday.

"At least 10 soldiers were killed and at least 10 others were injured," said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"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."

The attack was carried out on an army checkpoint near the Mazzeh military airport in the western suburbs of Damascus. The explosion was heard across parts of the Syrian capital and flames were visible from a distance, said the observatory.

*With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse