BEIRUT – Syria's rebels have received shipments of more powerful weapons from Gulf allies in recent weeks, particularly anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, that have already helped stall aggressive new advances by regime forces.
But those same shipments have sparked feuding and squabbling among rebel factions, illustrating the complications the United States will face as it starts directly arming the rebels, a major policy shift by the Obama administration.
Every shipment enters a tangle of complex rebel politics, with dozens of brigades and battalions operating on the ground, riven by jealousies, rivalries and competition, with radical Islamist fighters dominant. Moderate brigades complain Islamists are being favored. Islamists say they are being unfairly blamed. On the ground, rebels are making efforts to organize themselves to better funnel weapons and more effectively fight, but they often stumble over the same splits.
The new shipment earlier this month — said to be only the second sent by Gulf countries since November, and the first ever known to include some anti-aircraft missiles — caused a stir among rebels who say it went to one of the extreme Islamist groups, Ahrar al-Sham. The group is the strongest member of the Syrian Islamist Front, made up of 11 Islamist factions, which appears to be increasingly posing as a parallel to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, a loose umbrella group of rebel fighters.
"The distribution was not fair," said Zeineddine al-Shami, a spokesman for the First Brigade of the Free Syrian Army in the Damascus area. "It was random, based on the people they know."
Rebels in the Damascus area have struggled in recent weeks against a stepped-up campaign by regime forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites fighters, to push them out of suburbs that have been rebel strongholds.
Ahrar al-Sham is one of the most well-established rebel groups to emerge in the Syrian conflict, with fighting units in nearly all the provinces. It has coordinated to some degree with the new unified Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, created in December to incorporate the disparate rebel brigades, but it still maintains an independent command.
Although it calls itself a moderate Islamist group, activists and residents in areas the group controls describe them as hardcore. Alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked force that includes many foreign jihadis, Ahrar al-Sham controls Raqaa, the only city the rebels managed to fully seize in Syria. One activist reported seeing Ahrar al-Sham fighters threatening to cut off an old man's hands for smoking, a vice for observant Muslims.
Ahrar al-Sham denied it received the weapons.
Its leader Abdullah al-Hamawi wrote on his Twitter account Wednesday that reports his group has received new anti-tank missiles "can only be taken in the context of attempts to incite factions against each other."
Whether the denial is true or not, it reflects the deep sensitivity among the factions over who gets weapons.
"They deny it for a simple reason, because of the high competition, even conflict, between groups," Mustafa Alani, a Dubai-based expert on Gulf countries' policies including aid to Syrian rebels, said. "And they don't want to appear as having been adopted by outside parties."
President Barack Obama has resisted directly arming rebels, fearing getting mired in the conflict, now in its third year with some 93,000 estimated dead. The U.S. is also concerned that stronger weapons could fall into the hands of extremists. Until now, it has only consulted as regional allies including Saudi Arabia and Qatar began sending ammunition and lighter arms last year through Jordan and Turkey, while the Americans provided non-lethal equipment. The countries have never publicly confirmed their involvement in arms shipments.
But earlier this month, Obama announced the United States would begin providing arms and ammunition, after President Bashar Assad's military dealt the rebels serious setbacks. U.S. officials say they want weapons to go to more moderate factions. The most likely funnel would be the Supreme Military Council, headed by Gen. Salim Idris, a defector from Assad's military.
The recent shipment was provided by Gulf nations, not directly by the U.S, according to activists.
Alani said it included Russian anti-tank missiles, which rebels have previously obtained from raids on Syrian military arsenals, and some Chinese anti-aircraft missiles in small quantities. The United States and its allies have been highly reluctant to provide anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels, but the rebels have been desperate for them to counter regime aircraft that relentless pound their positions.
Alani would not say how many anti-aircraft or anti-tanks missiles were in the shipment, but said a figure of 250 missiles that has circulated was "exaggerated."
He said there was already evidence of rebels using the new anti-tanks missiles in the city of Aleppo to counter two weeks of intensified regime assaults on their neighborhoods, and in the southern province of Daraa. "This could change the features of the battle greatly in favor of the rebels."
The shipment also illustrates the problem of defining moderate or Islamist factions. Alani said Ahrar al-Sham is seen by some as a relatively moderate Islamist force.
FSA leaders argue that funneling weapons through Idris' command structure will strengthen moderates and sideline Islamic radicals, who have been among the most powerful fighters in the field. Idris has been criticized by some rebels for being ineffective in providing weapons — but if he becomes the gatekeeper for arms, he could also come under heavy criticism and backlash for doling out to some groups and not others.
Over the past six months, Idris' council has worked to create regional command centers, integrate disparate groups and establish coordination with the more Islamist groups.
But efforts to integrate rebels also run into issues of vanity and territorial disputes, said al-Shami, the Damascus rebel spokesman.
In recent months, the FSA formed an umbrella group for 12 brigades in the Damascus suburb of Eastern al-Ghouta to better defend it, he said. Months later, a new group of different brigades started operating in the same area, after their own unification process.
"There are also a lot of differences, in the way of thinking and method of working. There was also selfishness."
Some groups recognize Idris as chief of staff. But others mock the FSA as a virtual myth or perceive FSA rebels as disunited, hungry for plunder and — in the eyes of Islamists — not of moral caliber.
Abu Bilal al-Homsi, an activist connected to rebels in the besieged central city of Homs, said the FSA re-organization of brigades was targeted against the Islamist factions. He said the FSA wants to create Syrian "Sahwa" groups, referring to U.S.-allied groups of Sunni fighters in Iraq that battled al-Qaida.
"There is no FSA. It is a lie," he said in an interview through Skype. "These new weapons will be aimed at every brigade that raises the flag of 'There is no god but God.'" He was referring to the Islamic declaration of faith that serves as the insignia on black flags carried by jihadist groups.
Much of the rebels' arsenal has come from weapons taken from the military in raids or bought from corrupt regime officials. Part of the strength of radicals like Jabhat al-Nusra has been that they were often the first to seize weapons, which they could distribute to win over other factions, said activist Rami Jarrah, who has traveled with rebels around Syria.
Radical factions have also benefited from smuggled weapons provided by rich Gulf clerics and families who have vowed support for Islamist rebels as the conflict takes increasingly sectarian overtones, he said.
Activist Hadi Abdullah coordinated among battalions on the ground during the recent battle for Qusair, which ended this month with regime forces capturing the town. His role also involved dealing with donors and financiers, including rich Arabs and exiled Syrians.
"I've developed a complex from donors." Some of them made incredible demands, he said, such as asking rebels to film their operations and call it by the donor's name. Others would say here is the money, buy weapons but don't use them yet. "Why store it? What is their aim? We refuse that."
Alani said "different intentions" among international arms providers bring another complication.
"There is a big difference," he said. "The regional states, specially the Gulf states ... want the arm supply to help (rebels) to score a military victory. The Americans and the European Union want only to restore balance because they think once you restore balance both parties will be ready to come to the table."