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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Syria peace talks pay dividends for rebels on the battlefield

Although the Geneva peace talks offered no breakthrough, international donors have since upped their military funding for opposition fighters.

BEIRUT // In the run up to last month’s Geneva talks, rebels fighting in southern Syria complained supplies were drying up, as their international backers pressed them to sit and negotiate with President Bashar Al Assad.

“We are being squeezed to go to the talks, they’re withholding military supplies, even food supplies, everyone is pressuring us to go to Geneva,” a rebel commander from the southern region said in the weeks before negotiations were due to start.

Ammunition was running so low for some brigades that they were wrapping machine guns in greased cloths and putting them into storage.

The international arm-twisting worked and a delegation from the Syrian National Coalition went to Geneva, despite huge disquiet within rebel ranks that it was all a ruse by the regime designed to buy time.

With the Geneva talks now over, and no progress made, ammunition is flowing once more, thanks to US and Gulf funding, and the machine guns can come out of their wrappings.

The rebels who said they were being choked are now reaping a dividend for not standing in the way of peace efforts.

Rebels say the Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, and the US, have promised them better arms post-Geneva.

What remains to be seen is whether that will include the shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missiles rebel factions have long dreamed of acquiring. And, if it does, whether that will shift the balance of power back in the rebel’s favour. The US has so far vetoed those missile supplies, fearing they will end up in the hands of militants with links to Al Qaeda who might decide to shoot down a civilian airliner instead of Mr Al Assad’s air force.

However, on Wednesday Ahmed Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition, and known to be close to Riyadh, hinted such weapons might be en route to rebels.

Commanders on the ground in southern Syria have also suggested the Saudis may opt to give them anti-aircraft missiles, regardless of US wishes. Training on those weapons systems may already have taken place in Turkey, they said.

The latest round of Geneva talks, which concluded on January 31, did nothing to dent a campaign of barrel bombing from the air by regime forces that has killed hundreds of people in Aleppo and Damascus suburbs.

Riyadh, with or without Washington’s backing, may have decided the only way to stop the bombs falling is by helping the rebels shoot the aircraft down.

psands@thenational.ae