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Syrian rebels say promised arms yet to be delivered from allies

| Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, 8:12 p.m.

Just when they expected a flood of heavy weapons to help them make a major push against the forces of President Bashar Assad, rebel commanders in Syria say that arms shipments from outside the country have slowed — prolonging a conflict nearing the end of its second year.

Although rebels have made gains in Syria's north and east — seizing military bases and checkpoints — opposition figures who made predictions of quick victory now say their arsenal is at a level that can support only a war of attrition.

“There will be no quick and practical end,” said Nabil Amir, spokesman for key rebel group Damascus Military Council.

Although arms for the Syrian opposition have come primarily from Arab states in the Persian Gulf region, rebel commanders almost uniformly blame the slowdown on the United States, which they suspect of exerting pressure on its regional allies.

Commanders of Syria's fractured opposition said they were promised weapons as an incentive to unite. In December, provincial councils in the Free Syrian Army, an opposition umbrella group, gathered from across the country under the banner of a Supreme Military Council at the behest of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

“We were promised that if we unified our ranks that we would be given legitimacy as well as salaries and heavy weapons,” said Col. Qassim Saad Eddine, a member of the 30-member council. “But from that day, we have gotten nothing.”

The reluctance of Arab and Western countries to arm the rebels is based, in part, on concerns that the weapons would fall into the hands of groups that those nations view as extremist. But it has paradoxically served to increase the influence of Islamist fighters in Syria, who have emerged as the best-armed members of the insurgency.

Strong and better disciplined, the Islamists have had more success in capturing Syrian military weapons. Some people suspect they also benefit from wealthy supporters, possibly linked to al-Qaida.

Top Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, recently revealed that they supported a recommendation last summer by the State Department and CIA to arm the rebels, but were overruled by the White House.

On Monday, the European Union decided to continue its arms embargo against both sides in the conflict.

Last year, a steady flow of predominantly light weapons, most shipped through Turkey from Persian Gulf states, enabled rebels in northern Syria to destroy government tanks, down attack helicopters and fighter jets, and seize large swaths of Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

But Jordan has since stanched the flow of small arms across its border and weapons shipments to the rebels from Turkey and gulf states have dwindled, said Mohammad Qaddah, a member of the 60-seat Syrian National Coalition.

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