Time reports: 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.
As TIME reports here, 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. [Continue reading…]