AMMAN, Jordan – Mideast powers opposed to President Bashar Assad have dramatically stepped up weapons supplies to Syrian rebels in coordination with the U.S. in preparation for a push on the capital of Damascus, officials and Western military experts said Wednesday.
A carefully prepared covert operation is arming rebels, involving Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, with the United States and other Western governments consulting, and all parties hold veto power over where the shipments are directed, according to a senior Arab official whose government is participating. His account was corroborated by a diplomat and two military experts.
The Arab official said the number of arms airlifts into Jordan and Turkey has doubled in the past four weeks. He did not provide exact figures on the flights or the size of the cargo. Jordan opened up as a new route for the weapons late last year, amid U.S. worries that arms from Turkey were going to Islamic militants, all four told the Associated Press in separate interviews. Jordan denies helping funnel weapons to the rebels.
The two military experts, who closely follow the traffic, said the weapons include more powerful, Croatian-made anti-tank guns and rockets than the rebels have had before.
The Arab official said there was a “master plan” for the rebels to seize Damascus. He and the diplomat spoke to the Associated Press on condition that their identities and their nationalities not be disclosed because the operation was covert.
Rebels have captured suburbs around Damascus but have been largely unable to break into the heavily guarded capital. Instead, they have hit central neighborhoods of the city with increasingly heavy mortar volleys from their positions to the northeast and south.
But rebels in the south are fighting to secure supply lines from the border with Jordan to the capital, and the new influx of weapons from Jordan has fueled the drive, a rebel commander in a southwestern suburb of the capital said. The consensus among the multiple rebel groups was that Damascus is the next objective, he added.
Syria’s rebels, who are divided into numerous independent brigades, have long complained that the international community is not providing them with the weaponry needed to oust Assad, drawing out a civil war that in the past two years has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced 3.5 million Syrians, nearly a third of them fleeing into neighboring countries.
But the United States in particular has been wary of arming the rebellion, fearing weapons will go to Islamic extremists who have taken a prominent role in the uprising. Washington says it is only providing non-lethal aid to the rebels. The U.S. involvement in the arms channels opened up by its regional allies is aimed at ensuring the weapons are not going to militants.