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Syrian rebels reap weapons windfall

| Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, 9:57 p.m.

Syrian rebels have received an unexpected windfall in the form of large weapon caches seized in fighting during the past three weeks, including stocks of heavy arms that could help offset recent battlefield gains by government forces, U.S. and Middle East officials said.

The weapons include hundreds of advanced anti-tank missiles captured in fighting near Damascus and a sizable haul of armored vehicles, machine guns and rockets taken from a Syrian air base overrun this month, the officials said.

While Syria's fractious rebel brigades regularly acquire arms by looting captured government installations, the arsenals seized in the past month were unusual in size and quality and could help chip away the government's significant military advantage in some heavily contested parts of the country, according to two Middle Eastern officials and one U.S. official with access to sensitive intelligence on Syria.

The air base was overrun by a force of Western-backed rebels and radical Islamists. They split the seized materiel, the officials said.

Meanwhile, the rebels have yet to receive promised military aid from the United States and there are no clear signs of a momentum shift in the conflict, which in recent months has seen rebel units driven from former strongholds in several parts of the country, the officials say.

Analysts say the capturing of the Menagh air base north of Aleppo on Aug. 6 provided a tactical and psychological boost for the rebels, who entered the facility after a costly 10-month siege and carted away truckloads of booty. Rebel commanders are now redeploying newly re-armed units against other strategic targets around Aleppo, the country's largest city, the officials said.

“The seizing of Menagh is looking very important because the rebels gained a lot of weapons there,” said a senior Middle Eastern intelligence official who spoke on the condition that his name and nationality be withheld, citing the sensitivity of his government's intelligence collection efforts in the region. “The Syrians were using the air base for weapons storage, and it had a lot of good-quality stuff.”

Jeffrey White, a former analyst for the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, called the seized caches larger than usual and said they “will definitely help the rebels, particularly in the Aleppo area,” where government efforts to roll back the resistance appear to have stalled. Rebel groups, he said, “are making slow progress in taking government-held positions,” particularly in the north, said White, now a defense fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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