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Syria rebels 'buy arms with Gulf and US help'

Analysts say new weapons and American logistical support strengthen uprising, but Assad regime forces remain more cohesive.

BEIRUT // The Syrian uprising is growing in strength, analysts confirmed yesterday, amid reports that rebels are buying more and better weapons with cash from Qatar and Saudi Arabia and indirect logistical support from the United States.

While they do not match the numbers and firepower of Syrian government forces, they have been able to carry out hit-and-run attacks that keep the regime of Bashar Al Assad off balance and prevent any return to normality.

The increased support aims to shore up the rebels after their weapons supplies were depleted by assaults on their stronghold in Homs in the past two months, The Washington Post reported yesterday.

The aid consists of millions of dollars a month from Qatar and Saudi Arabia and indirect assistance from the US, although Washington is still wary of direct involvement in the rebellion. Rebels have used the money to buy arms including anti-tank weaponry on the black market or from the Syrian military itself.

"We are increasing our non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, and we continue to coordinate our efforts with friends and allies in the region and beyond in order to have the biggest impact on what we are collectively doing," a US state department official told the US newspaper.

Timor Goksel, lecturer in conflict management at the American University of Beirut and former United Nations spokesman, said insurgents had indeed become "more lethal" but it was unclear if that could be linked to weaponry acquired through increased US and Gulf support.

"They have been causing more fatalities on the government side because they are more proficient at ambushes, and this does indicate some level of organisational improvement," he said.

Opposition forces killed 23 Syrian troops on Monday in a battle over Rastan, near Homs, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

Mr Goksel said the opposition's successes had consisted largely of campaigns of roadside-bomb attacks, which government forces found difficult to defend against.

Efforts to arm Syria's rebels come amid mounting frustration over a month-old peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy. Government forces have killed hundreds despite the plan's call for a ceasefire and government withdrawals of heavy weaponry from population centres.

Mr Assad's forces are expected to receive further weapins shipments from the Russians, key allies who have blocked multiple UN efforts to censure the Syrian regime over its violent repression of protesters.

Gennady Gatilov, Moscow's deputy foreign minister, promised on Monday that arms sales to Damascus would continue despite the Annan plan.

This would further tip the scales in the government's favour, according to analysts, who said the Syrian military remained far more cohesive, organised and armed than the rebels.

"More weapons means rebels can take out more tanks here and there, but that does not necessarily mean they have the effectiveness to mount major assaults against the Syrian military and take control of territory from it," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

A key difference with other uprisings in the region has been that so few senior military officers have defected to the opposition, he said. Such high-level defections helped Libyan rebels to better organise their assaults on forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi.

"Putting together an army is not something you do on the fly overnight," Mr Salem said.

Meanwhile anti-regime forces yesterday safely returned UN observers beack to their team. Their convoy was bombed a day earlier during a suspected government assault on demonstrators in the city of Khan Sheikhun.

The observers, from Yemen, Brazil, Bangladesh, Denmark, Morocco and the Netherlands, had to take refuge overnight with anti-regime activists because they feared government attacks.

Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for Mr Annan, said the team was "reported to be uninjured and in good health".

More than 200 UN observers have been deployed throughout Syria to monitor the Annan plan. Tuesday's attack was the second on a UN convoy in less than a week.


* With additional reporting by the Associated Press

Updated: May 17, 2012 04:00 AM