Syria rebels get arms from abroad: opposition source

TUNIS Fri Feb 24, 2012 2:28pm GMT

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Western and other countries are turning a blind eye to weapons purchases by Syrian exiles who are already smuggling light arms, communications equipment and night vision goggles to rebels inside Syria, a Syrian opposition source said Friday.

Syrian opposition supporters were also trying to find ways to bring anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons to the Free Syrian Army, which is composed mainly of Syrian soldiers who have defected and volunteer civilians, the source said.

"We are bringing in defensive and offensive weapons... It is coming from everywhere, including Western countries and it is not difficult to get anything through the borders," the source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"There is not a decision by any country to arm the rebels but countries are allowing Syrians to buy weapons and send them into the country."

Contacts were also ongoing to find ways to get retired Syrian officers into Syria to act as advisers in an effort to coordinate rebels fighting in a nearly year-old uprising against Bashar al-Assad's rule and to train civilian volunteers in how to use weapons that are being smuggled in.

The move is part of an effort to turn the Free Syrian Army, so far composed of rag-tag groups fighting in different parts of Syria with little ability to coordinate, into a unified force with a chain of command that can better fight Assad's forces.

"The focus of the Syrian National Council is to create a chain of command and organize the Free Syrian Army efforts and to create a central base," the source said.

"There are people already identified to be in charge of this (acting as advisors). There are lots of political discussions on this issue... These will be Syrians, former Syrian officers, retired, not a single non-Syrian."

Arab and Western powers have been divided over whether to formally arm Syria's rebels, with some concerned that such measures will only worsen the violence and suck in neighboring countries, with different governments backing different groups.

While the Free Syrian Army has been able to smuggle in weapons across porous borders, Syrian opposition figures attending a meeting of more than 50 nations said there was no formal foreign military support for the opposition so far.

The question of whether governments critical of Assad should arm the Syrian opposition has come into focus in recent days after the United States appeared to suggest it would not oppose the arming of the rebels if all diplomatic channels failed.

U.S. officials did not say if the United States would arm the rebels but suggested they would find ways to arm themselves.

"There will be increasingly capable opposition forces. They will from somewhere, somehow, find the means to defend themselves as well as begin offensive measures," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday.

SNC CALLS FOR ARMING REBELS

The news came as Western and Arab countries met to discuss the Syrian crisis in Tunis. Syria's main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) formally appealed to the "Friends of Syria" to arm the Free Syrian Army and to support all forms of popular resistance, as political efforts appeared deadlocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes in the U.N. Security Council.

"If the regime fails to accept the terms of the political initiative outlined by the Arab League and end violence against citizens, the Friends of Syria should not constrain individual countries from aiding the Syrian opposition by means of military advisers, training and provision of arms to defend themselves," the SNC said in a seven-point statement of demands to the international meeting in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

An Arab official told Reuters Friday that he did not expect any move by governments to arm the Syrian opposition, given divisions in its ranks. Formal support for the Syrian opposition was likely to be financial and humanitarian, he said.

"Those who want to arm are not waiting for aid," he said.

The increasing militarization of the Syrian uprising, which began peacefully but has descended into violence that has killed thousands of people, has caused significant unease among some Arab officials concerned about a slide into civil war.

"I think this will complicate matters further. Militarizing the opposition and the protests will create a complicated situation that might lead to a civil war and this is not wanted," deputy Arab League chief Ahmed Ben Helli told Reuters on the eve of the meeting Thursday.

(Writing by Lin Noueihed; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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