June 17, 2013 | Quote

US Weapons Can Get to Syria Rebels Via Familiar Route

Now that President Obama has decided to provide military assistance to Syrian rebels, the next step is not difficult, said a military analyst who's been studying the Syria conflict.

U.S. intelligence has vetted the rebel forces to determine who should get the arms, and it has a willing middleman in Turkey on Syria's northern border, said Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study or War.

Turkey, a NATO member, has air bases and ports U.S. forces have used to move equipment and people to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

Turkey's Incirlak Air Base, which is technically a NATO air base, is one likely hub for U.S.-supplied weapons intended for the rebels, Harmer said.

“The U.S. moves cargo through there all the time,” Harmer said. Establishing a supply route to the rebels “is not that hard.”

Tony Badran, an analyst with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said Syrian troop movements toward the major rebel stronghold Aleppo could disrupt that well-worn supply route in Syria.

“It's a very important area for weapons supplies because it's close to the border with Turkey, and the countryside along the border with Turkey is really where all those weapons come in,” Badran said.

The United States has been sending communication equipment to rebels of the Free Syrian Army through Turkey. Rebels have picked up shipments in Istanbul and driven them across the border into Syria along secure routes.

Rebel leaders have reported Syrian government forces moving toward Aleppo, Syria's largest city in the north and a hub for rebel operations and supplies and fighters coming from Turkey.

The massing of troops for a possible offensive on Aleppo has led to “a major freakout” among rebel supporters about whether the divided city will fall to a combined assault by government forces and fighters from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon, Badran said.

Assad used a combination of total siege, artillery bombardment and hundreds of Hezbollah ground forces to overtake Qusair last week after a battle that lasted almost a month, but that approach will be much more difficult in Aleppo, Badran said.

Rebels control most of the countryside between Aleppo and Turkey to the north, and activists on the ground report that the Turks have secured all the border crossings, in preparation for weapons shipments to start flowing, he said.

The timing of Obama's announcement provides political cover to other U.S. allies, such as the British, French, Turks, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that are poised to start supplying rebels in earnest, he said.

“To lock down Aleppo like the regime did in Qusair is not going to be as easy,” Badran said.

The Free Syrian Army has been complaining over a lack of weapons since last year. What they mainly have is small arms and grenades taken from regime forces or smuggled through from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, sometimes paid for by Gulf states such as Qatar.

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