BEIRUT — Two significant defeats at the hands of Syrian government troops have exposed the limitations of the country’s rebel forces: They are low on cash, running out of weapons and facing a fiercely loyal military that will fight to the death.
Insisting that their drive to oust President Bashar Assad by force remains strong, the Free Syrian Army says the arms shortage is the main obstacle.
“Send us money, we’re desperate. Send us weapons,” Ahmad Kassem, who coordinates military operations for the FSA, told The Associated Press in an interview. “We don’t need fighters. We have excess men who can fight, but we need weapons to protect our land and honor.”
In the past year, the rebels briefly seized small amounts of territory, most recently in the Baba Amr district of Homs and the city of Idlib in northern Syria.
After nearly four weeks of relentless shelling, the government reclaimed Baba Amr on March 1 following an assault that killed hundreds of people and transformed the neighborhood into a symbol of the uprising. The humanitarian situation in Baba Amr, part of the third-largest city in Syria, remains catastrophic for civilians.
Government forces next turned their guns on Idlib, another bastion of opposition support. On Tuesday, government forces took control of the city in a three-day operation — significantly shorter but still bloody.
The Free Syrian Army has emerged as the most potent armed force fighting Assad. It is highly decentralized, with its leaders in the relative safety of neighboring countries. The rebels have not come close to carving out a zone akin to Benghazi in eastern Libya, the center of the successful uprising against Moammar Gadhafi last year.
“If we had a safe haven to operate out of inside Syria, we would’ve won the battle against Bashar a long time ago,” said Muneef Al-Zaeem, an FSA spokesman based in Jordan.
The defeats have sapped some of the rebels’ momentum, but the fighters say they are using the opportunity to regroup.
“We absolutely do not feel defeated, not at all,” said Fayez Amru, a FSA member who defected from the military about a month ago and is now based in Turkey. But he lashed out at the international community, saying even the most blistering criticism of Assad will not help those facing down the regime’s tanks. He appealed for weapons.
“I wonder about this international community, which has not offered the Syrian people a single gun,” he said, bitterly. “People in the so-called free, civilized world should be ashamed of themselves.”
An influx of weapons could transform the conflict. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been discussing military aid, but the U.S. and others have not advocated arming the rebels, in part out of fear it would create an even more bloody and prolonged battle.
Syria has a complex web of allegiances in the region that extend to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, raising fears of wider violence.
Analysts see reason to be concerned, given that criminals could try to exploit burgeoning rebel force. Some observers already see trouble brewing.
“The recruits into this ‘army’ range from fathers defending their families to bereaved young men to defectors fighting for their lives, but its ranks are not devoid of fundamentalist militants and unreconstructed villains,” according to a recent analysis of the Syrian conflict by the International Crisis Group. “To date, the latter elements have not been predominant, although they are all that the regime, its supporters and its allies want to see.”
The regime says it is fighting foreign terrorists and armed gangs, asserting that the yearlong uprising is not a popular revolt. But the opposition denies that, saying Assad’s opponents have been forced to take up arms after the government used tanks, snipers and machine guns to crush peaceful protesters.
In recent months, interviews with more than a dozen FSA members indicate that the group’s weapons come from Iraq and Lebanon, as well as from army defectors who kept their weapons when they abandoned their posts.
One FSA fighter, who is based in Turkey, said it was easiest to smuggle in arms from Iraq, but the quality of the weapons was bad.
“Our RPGs are Russian-made and mostly come in from Iraq, but four out of five rounds are a dud,” he said, asking that his name not be published out of fear for his safety.
He also said costs were skyrocketing. An AK-47 assault rifle is anywhere between $1,000 and $1,500, he said.
Syrian army officers also have sold weapons to the rebels in some cases, trying to turn a profit, according to several people, including Mohammed Qaddah, a Free Syrian Army official who helps draw up military plans for the rebels.
Without a steady arms supply, he said, the rebels will rely on the well-worn tactics of insurgencies the world over.
“We use Molotov cocktails, homemade grenades and roadside ambushes,” he said.
Qaddah said there are thousands of rebels willing to fight in a suburb of the capital, Damascus — an allegation that is impossible to confirm — but there are only 750 machine guns.
“They take turns using them,” Qaddah said.
As the rebels struggle to get weapons, Damascus has a steady supply from Russia.
Earlier this week, Russia said it will abide by existing contracts to deliver weapons to Syria despite Assad’s crackdown. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov defended that stance Wednesday, saying Moscow is providing Syria with arms to fend off external threats.
Assad considers the uprising to be a foreign plot to destroy the country.
“We are selling weapons to Syria for its national defense, national security,” Lavrov told lawmakers in the Russian parliament. “We aren’t providing Syria with any weapons that could be used against protesters, against peaceful citizens, helping fuel the conflict. We aren’t doing that. We are only helping Syria to protect its security against external threats.”
Russia, a key Syrian ally since Soviet times, has been the main supplier of arms for the Syrian military, which has relied almost exclusively on Soviet and Russian-made weapons, from assault rifles to tanks to aircraft and missiles.
So far, the FSA does not pose a real threat to the Syrian army, a highly professional and ironclad military.
But Al-Zaeem, the FSA spokesman in Jordan, vowed to keep up the fight.
“We’re planning ambushes, which will be painful for Bashar’s army and its allies,” he said. “We promise Bashar it will be painful. He will see.”