Flow of weapons being used as bargaining tool


ANALYSIS: The slowing of arms supplies to Syrian rebels could be seen as a way to get them to agree to talks

THE SYRIAN opposition reports that weapons supplies to rebels fighting Damascus have diminished over the past two weeks, while Russia has pledged to maintain the flow of arms to the government in line with previously signed contracts.

Opposition activists argue that the slowing of arms supplies to the rebels could be seen as pressure being put on them to agree to talks. It may also signal a willingness by western powers to allow UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to make a serious attempt to end the violence and start talks.

And having said no new arms deals will be signed, Moscow could be using shipments to put pressure on the western and Arab allies to do just this.

Moscow has also warned against direct external intervention in the Syrian conflict by dispatching an 11-vessel flotilla, led by an anti-submarine missile destroyer, to the Syrian port of Tartus, host to Russia’s sole Mediterranean service facility.

Furthermore, a Russian- reflagged cargo ship transporting three Syrian military helicopters reconditioned in Russia has set sail for Syria. The ship was forced to return to its Russian Arctic port after a British insurance firm revoked cover for the formerly Curacao-flagged freighter.

The western powers and the expatriate opposition Syrian National Council have insisted that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must step down before negotiations can begin under the Annan plan. But Moscow contends that the plan does not call for Assad’s removal as a precondition for dialogue.

Russia’s actions appear to belie western claims that its line on Syria is softening. A Beirut analyst argued that this would not happen: “For Russia and Iran, Syria is a question of national security.”

They cannot allow Syria – a key country in the heartland of the eastern Arab world – to collapse into chaos or slip into the western sphere of influence. “If Syrian president Bashar al-Assad falls, the entire regime will fall,” the source said. “The consequences for Syria and this region would be unbelievable.”

The source said the regime represented the minorities, leaving 30 to 35 per cent of the Syrian population at risk of persecution.

The analyst predicted that the regime, which “has better equipment and arms” than the rebels, was likely to survive. The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins next week, could be crucial in the government’s campaign to crush the rebels. “Assad has vowed to finish every armed opponent ... [and] once negotiations begin, the exiled opposition will be out.”

If, however, the government loses control of swathes of territory to the rebels, they could face assaults by pro-regime elements residing in or infiltrating these areas, the analyst said.

Syria’s local allies – Iran and Hizbullah – “have the means to buy up gunmen, gangsters . . . weapons are there, thousands of missiles are there”.

A rebel-held enclave west of Deraa, the cradle of the revolt, could be infiltrated by fighters from the Lebanese Hizbullah movement who could fire missiles into Israel. The analyst said: “Hizbullah cannot launch an attack on Israel from Lebanon due to the very delicate [political] situation in Lebanon. Syria could present an opportunity.”