Rania Abouzeid writes for Time magazine:
Vast swaths of northern Syria, especially in the province of Idlib, have slipped out of the hands of President Bashar Assad, if not quite out of his reach. The area is now a de facto liberated zone, though the daily attacks by Damascus’ air force and the shelling from the handful of checkpoints and bases regime forces have fallen back to are reminders that the rebel hold on the territory remains fluid and fragile.
What is remarkable is that this substantial strip of “free” Syria has been patched together in the past 18 months by military defectors, students, tradesmen, farmers and pharmacists who have not only withstood the Syrian army’s withering fire but in some instances repelled it using a hodgepodge of limited, light weaponry. The feat is even more amazing when one considers the disarray among the outside powers supplying arms to the loosely allied band of rebels....
Disorder and distrust plague two of the rebels’ international patrons: Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two Gulf powerhouses are no longer on the same page when it comes to determining who among the plethora of mushrooming Syrian rebel groups should be armed. The rift surfaced in August, with the alleged Saudi and Qatari representatives in charge of funneling free weaponry to the rebels clearly backing different factions among the groups — including various shades of secular and Islamist militias — under the broad umbrella that is the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The middlemen of the two countries operate out of Turkey, the regional military power. Ankara has been quite public with its denunciation of Assad even as it denies any involvement in shuffling weapons across the border to Syrian rebels. It claims its territory is not being used to do so. And yet, as TIME reported in June, a secretive group operates something like a command center in Istanbul, directing the distribution of vital military supplies believed to be provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and transported with the help of Turkish intelligence to the Syrian border and then to the rebels. Further reporting has revealed more details of the operation, the politics and favoritism that undermine the task of creating a unified rebel force out of the wide array of groups trying to topple the Assad regime.
(The FSA is nominally headed by Riad al-As’aad, who is based in Turkey. Neither As’aad nor his chief FSA rival General Mustafa Sheikh are party to the Istanbul control room that supplies and arms rebels who operate under the FSA banner. The two men each have their own sources of funding and are independently distributing money and weapons to selected FSA units.)
According to sources who have dealt with him, Saudi Arabia’s man in the Istanbul control center is a Lebanese politician named Okab Sakr. He belongs to the Future Movement, the organization of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which has a history of enmity with Damascus. (Syria was accused of complicity in the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father Rafiq.) The party has not made Sakr available to TIME, denies his involvement in any weapons deals and insists that Sakr is in Belgium “on leave” from his political duties.
However, he apparently was in the southern Turkish city of Antakya in late August. A TIME inquiry with an Antakya hotel confirms Sakr was in the area at the time. According to rebel sources who dealt with him, the Lebanese politician was there overseeing the distribution of batches of supplies — small consignments of 50,000 Kalashnikov bullets and several dozen rocket-propelled grenades — to at least four different FSA groups in Idlib province as well as larger consignments to other areas including Homs. The FSA sources also say he met with some commanders but not others — a selectivity that led to much chagrin.
That kind of favoritism has caused problems on the ground in many ways. According to FSA sources, prominent activists and members of the Istanbul control room, Sakr was mainly responsible for designating the representatives in Syria’s 14 provinces to whom the Istanbul center would funnel small batches of light weapons — Kalashnikov rifles, BKC machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and ammunition — to reach FSA groups operating in each area. But the 20 or so Syrians selected to distribute armaments (some areas, like Damascus, have more than one representative) were not all effective. These representatives were “supposed to deliver the support inside, but they did not have a presence on the ground. They weren’t known,” says an influential U.S.-based Syrian activist with wide contacts inside Syria who played a role in setting up the Istanbul operations room. “I saw this weak point, so I connected Okab to people I knew were working on the ground. And I wasn’t the only one to do this. Others did too, because we wanted the room to succeed.”
But the selectivity has bred further favoritism in the distribution of arms. “Those who received goods would distribute them as they wanted. They started sending to people and saying, ‘This is a gift from me to you,’ ” a member of the control room representing eastern Syria told TIME. Other representatives were blunter, seeking pledges of loyalty from FSA groups inside the country before delivering the goods. To try to alleviate the problem, the provincial representatives were cycled in and out of the room’s operations, but the problems remained. “The weapons are all being distributed in secret,” says one fighter inside Syria, angrily, “and what is secret will stay unclear.”
The situation is compounded by Qatar’s man — a major who defected from Assad’s army, who has not yet responded to TIME’s request for comment. The Qataris want to focus on aiding the regional military councils, FSA groupings within Syria set up earlier this year partly in order to get around the favoritism of the representatives
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