Opposition forces seeking to overthrow the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, have stepped up their operations in the southern part of the country, including Damascus, with the help of an infusion of new weaponry identified by military analysts as having originated in Croatia.
Evidence of the influx of new weaponry for the rebels has been presented by Eliot Higgins, a U.K.-based blogger using the name Brown Moses, who has exhaustively analysed YouTube footage from rebels as well as regime videos of captured weaponry.
Higgins’ reports indicate that at least five types of weapon systems manufactured in Croatia and not in use by the Syrian army have recently appeared in large volumes, mainly in the south, where rebels have launched fresh offensives around Daraa and in Damascus.
The weapons include anti-tank missiles and heavy-caliber machine guns. They tend to be deployed in brigades affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which suggests that those behind the shipments may be seeking to boost these forces partly as a counterweight to the increased activities of jihadi groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra. The scale of the shipments also points to government involvement, with Saudi Arabia widely reported to be involved in the financing and Jordan presumed to have played a role in the logistics. In addition, Croatia is not currently subject to the E.U. embargo on the supply of weapons to Syria, although it is worth noting that its government has denied that it has exported any weapons to Syrian rebels.
Elsewhere, in the north, rebels have managed to obtain anti-aircraft missile systems from government stocks. This has inhibited the ability of the regime to use aircraft and helicopters to bomb rebel areas, and could partly explain the regime’s increased use of long-range surface-to-surface missiles (commonly referred to as Scuds). The regime denies firing these missiles, but YouTube footage and monitoring by Turkish radar tend to confirm it, as does the extreme destruction seen in the built-up areas that have reportedly been hit.
The intensification of the civil war hardly provides a promising backdrop for the talks beginning in Rome February 28. Although all sides have agreed to attend, the opposition only reversed a previously threatened boycott after the U.S. and the U.K. agreed to step up their aid (likely to be non-military in nature). With no hint that Assad will step down, and the rebels unwilling to parlay with either him or his henchmen, the talks are likely to prove an exercise in futility.
The latest reports of increased weapons shipments to the FSA, and the regime’s growing reliance on long-range missiles, confirms that the president will be removed eventually.
This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by Economist Intelligence Unit.
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Pratibha Thaker is regional director, Middle East & Africa for the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).