Syria rebels armed with Balkan war weaponry

Armed rebel fighters at checkpoints in Idlib province. Picture: Getty
Armed rebel fighters at checkpoints in Idlib province. Picture: Getty
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SAUDI Arabia has financed a large purchase of weapons from Croatia and channelled them to rebels in Syria in a drive to break the bloody stalemate that has ­allowed president Bashar al-­Assad to cling to power.

The weapons began reaching rebel fighters in December via Jordan, US officials said, and have been a factor in rebels’ ­tactical gains this winter against forces loyal to Mr Assad.

The arms transfers appear to signal a shift among several governments to a more active approach to assisting Syria’s armed opposition, in part as an effort to counter shipments of weapons from Iran to Mr Assad’s army and militias.

The weapons have been directed to nationalist and secularist rebel groups, and appear to have been meant to bypass the jihadists, whose role in the ­Syrian civil war have alarmed western and regional powers.

Washington’s role in the shipments, if any, is unclear. ­Officials in Europe and the US, including those at the CIA, cited the sensitivity of the shipments and declined to comment.

But one senior US official described the shipments as “a maturing of the opposition’s logistical pipeline”. The official added that Iran, with its shipments to Syria’s government, still ­outstrips what Arab states have sent to the rebels.

Another US official said Iran has been making flights with weapons into Syria that are so routine that he referred to them as “a milk run”. Several of the flights were by an Iranian air force Boeing jet using the name Maharaj Airlines, he said.

While Persian Gulf Arab nations have been sending military equipment and other assistance to the rebels for more than a year, the difference in the recent shipments has been partly of scale. Officials said multiple planeloads of weapons have left Croatia since December, when many Yugoslav arms began to appear in videos posted by rebels on YouTube.

Many of the weapons – which include a Yugoslav-made recoilless gun, as well as assault rifles, grenade launchers, machine guns, mortars and shoulder-fired rockets for use against tanks and other armoured vehicles – have been extensively documented by UK blogger Eliot Higgins, who writes under the name Brown Moses. He has mapped the new weapons’ spread through the conflict.

He first noticed the Yugoslav weapons in early January in clashes in the Deraa region near Jordan, but by February he was seeing them in videos posted by rebels fighting in the Hama, Idlib and Aleppo regions.

Officials familiar with the transfers said the arms were part of an undeclared surplus in Croatia remaining from the 1990s Balkan wars. One western official said the shipments included “thousands of rifles and hundreds of machine guns” and ammunition.

Croatia denied that such shipments had occurred. Saudi officials have declined requests for interviews about the shipments. Jordan also refused to comment.

An official in Washington said the possibility of the transfers from the Balkans was broached last summer, when a senior Croat visited America and suggested the plan.

Jutarnji list, a Croat daily, reported a significant number of Jordanian cargo planes at Pleso Airport in Zagreb in recent months. It cited four sightings of Ilyushin 76 planes owned by Jordan International Air Cargo.