Middle East

Gulf Arabs 'stepping up' arms supplies to Syrian rebels

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A rebel fighter fires heavy artillery during clashes with government forces and pro-regime shabiha militiamen in the outskirts of Syria's northwestern Idlib province Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption The Saudi official said rebels would get new anti-tank weapons

Saudi Arabia is responding to the recent Russian air strikes on Syrian rebels by stepping up its supplies of lethal weaponry to some rebel groups, a Saudi government official has told the BBC.

The well-placed official, who asked not to be named, said supplies of modern, high-powered weaponry including guided anti-tank weapons would be increased to the Arab- and western-backed rebel groups fighting the forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian, Iranian and Lebanese allies.

He said those groups being supplied did not include either Islamic State (IS) or al-Nusra Front, both of which are proscribed terrorist organisations. Instead, he said the weapons would go to the Free Syrian Army and other small rebel groups.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Russia brands all rebels opposing the Assad government as terrorists

The official added that Qatar and Turkey have been instrumental in maintaining Saudi support for Sunni rebels fighting both Assad's forces and, at times, the extremists of IS. Russia brands as terrorists all rebels opposing its ally, President Assad, including those trained by the US.

The Saudi official did not rule out supplying surface-to-air missiles to the rebels, a move resisted by many in the West for fear that they would fall into the hands of IS and end up being used to shoot down warplanes of the US-led Coalition or even civilian airliners.

'A new jihad'

Separately, a senior Gulf Arab official has voiced his fears that Russia's military intervention in Syria will trigger a new jihad, or 'holy war' and a repeat of Russia's disastrous experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Media captionThe BBC's Jonathan Marcus examines the increasingly risky air war over Syria

The official, who asked to remain anonymous, told journalists in London that during last week's UN General Assembly in New York, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was warned by Arab diplomats that his country's actions in Syria were creating what he called "a Frankenstein's monster" that would draw in vast numbers of jihadists intent on "liberating" Syria of Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. He said Russia's response had been to intensify its airstrikes.

However, the Gulf official admitted that after more than four years of conflict in Syria and over 250,000 deaths, neither the West nor the Gulf Arab states had a strategy for resolving it.

He said there was a need for clearer US leadership and that the worst thing now would be for the West to accept a compromise that allowed Syria's President Assad to remain in power, even for a limited period.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Gulf officials fear Russia could be ready to lay waste to areas opposing the Assad government

The Sunni Arabs of the region, he said, will not accept this, nor any arrangement that 'allowed Iran to dominate Syria', adding that IS and other extremist groups were the symptoms, not the cause, of Syria's misfortunes, which he blamed squarely on President Assad.

'Grozny-style' approach

Most of the Gulf Arab states and Turkey have been saying for some time that Syria's conflict can only end when President Assad is driven from power. They now realise that Russia has no intention of letting that happen and is prepared to commit blood and treasure to defend him and his family stronghold along Syria's Mediterranean coast.

The senior Gulf official said he now feared what he called a "Grozny-style" scorched-earth approach by Russia towards Syria, laying waste to whole areas that opposed the government.

Coupled with the prospect of new and more powerful weapons flowing to the rebels, the indications are that Syria's war is about to get a whole lot worse.

Correction 23 October 2015: A reference in an earlier version of this story had wrongly indicated Jaish al-Fatah did not include the Nusra Front and has been amended.

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