BEIRUT: Some Saudi Arabian-supplied anti-tank missiles intended for mainstream Syrian rebels have inadvertently landed in the hands of the Al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front, throwing plans to arm moderates via neighbor Jordan into question.
The failure of the pilot plan has forced Western and Arab opposition backers to reconfigure efforts to arm and vet moderate opposition types, and shift these efforts to the northern, Turkish border, The Daily Star has learned.
Senior Free Syrian Army and Jordanian sources, along with video evidence, have confirmed that European-made anti-tank missiles were obtained, and in some cases sold, to the hard-line Nusra Front after being supplied to vetted Free Syrian Army battalions across the Jordanian border.
The debacle prompted Jordan to back away from arrangements to arm moderate rebels, and close its borders in May.
The plan to train and arm moderate rebels via Syria’s southern border gained Western and Saudi support earlier this year, as concerns mounted over gains by Bashar Assad’s forces, backed by his Lebanese ally Hezbollah, as well as the proliferation of hard-line Islamist rebel brigades.
Special Forces personnel from the United States and the United Kingdom are known to have conducted training operations for vetted opposition troops.
An investigation by Reuters revealed that Saudi Arabia began transferring small numbers of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to Syrian rebels under the command of Gen. Salim Idriss, the chief of staff of the FSA, through Jordan in March.
The supply was reportedly coordinated by Saudi Arabia in consultation with France and Britain.
But Jordan, weary of the presence of Islamists at home, voiced concern over plans to arm the rebels, fearing that the weapons might end up in the hands of radicals, further jeopardizing Jordan’s security.
Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, cast doubt early on about the ability to properly vouch for rebel elements.
“Our position was always, arming who? And do we have addresses and do we have CVs? ... We are a country that neighbors Syria, and therefore, while we don’t interfere in the internal affairs of Syria, we are certainly affected by the outcome of what’s going on in Syria,” Judeh told reporters, in response to questions about arming the rebels, during a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Amman in May.
Those fears have only been compounded by hard-line jihadist gains in northern Syria. Increasing clashes between hard-line Islamist groups and Western-backed FSA battalions are also troubling Western opposition backers, who fear the Islamist rebels will prove hostile to their interests.
Complicating matters further, a group of over 30 mostly Islamist factions issued a statement late last month rejecting the authority of the Turkey-based, Western-backed Joint Military Council of the FSA, which has been struggling to unite armed opposition groups on the ground.
Those concerns appear to have come to fruition with the Saudi-supplied missiles apparently landing in the hands of the Nusra Front “within days” of arrival.
“Saudi [Arabia] supported the FSA with anti-tank missiles, which were worth about 1 million Syrian pounds ($5,000) each,” one Joint Military Council source told The Daily Star.
“But within days Nusra paid $15,000 for each.”
“So they are going in, and immediately being sold on.”
Whether FSA fighters were selling the missiles or Islamist fighters were acquiring them by force is unclear. But the effect was immediate.
Rebel fighters made steady gains in Deraa province on the border with Jordan in July and August, after the missiles began to be supplied.
But the growing role of Islamist groups in spearheading the fighting there was highlighted last week, when a group of mainly Islamist brigades, including the Nusra Front claimed to have taken control of the main Ramtha border crossing following days of intense fighting.
Jordan has closed its main borders to Syria for months, but officials and analysts say that events effectively ended the program and halted all weapons supply.
“Because Nusra has now taken control of the borders, arming has completely stopped,” said Fahd al-Khitan, political analyst and commentator at Al-Ghad newspaper.
“The transfer of weapons did not produce practical results on the ground.
Khitan noted incidents in which it appeared Nusra fighters had captured the weapons from their intended recipients during clashes.
“Jordan was always concerned that these shipments would reach radical groups and their concerns were proven correct,” he added.
Videos and photographs of Nusra Front fighters with the new weapons have recently circulated on the Internet.
“It was intended as a message from Nusra,” the Joint Military Council source said of one video statement.
“All this proves is that the SMC needs to work more on how to protect their property,” he said.
Blogger Eliot Higgins, aka Brown Moses, who maps the spread and use of weapons in the Syrian conflict, documented Nusra Front fighters using the Saudi-supplied missiles in joint operations in Deraa in March, but noted that in joint operations, it was unclear whether the intended recipients were also using the weapons.