Syrian rebels say they are at a turning point in the two-year conflict against President Bashar Assad’s forces, and that for the first time they have an organized, unified command that will now also benefit from a shipment of weapons from the United States.
The Obama administration decided this month to provide military aid to the rebels, with the first shipment expected within the next two weeks.
Meanwhile, rebels already wear American-supplied uniforms, use American radios and eat U.S. military rations. The United States has also been providing $2.5 million cash every month, they said.
But as Assad’s troops have made gains in recent weeks, some rebels worry the light weapons they are getting from the U.S. won’t stop the Syrian military — which is now supported by the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi'ite militia Hezbollah and other foreign fighters.
“I told them that we need anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles because these light weapons are not so effective,” said Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army, the main umbrella group of Syrian rebels.
Without heavier weapons, Idris said he worries the rebels will lose.
A military engineer who defected from Assad’s army, Idris said he has about 80,000 troops under his command.
“They are not extremists, they are just fighting for democracy and freedom to stop killing, to defend their villages and towns,” he said.
In the front-line town of Khan al-Asel, near Aleppo, Idris said his troops rarely face Syrian regime forces anymore.
“Those who are fighting on the ground are Hezbollah fighters, Iranian fighters, those and Iraqi fighters,” he said.
Since it began in March 2011, the Syrian conflict has left more than 93,000 people dead and another 6.8 million in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. The violence has also driven nearly 1.7 million refugees into neighboring countries.
The United States and Western European powers have joined Arab countries and Turkey in supporting the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels. Russia and Iran continue to support Assad.
Talks Tuesday between the United States and Russia to set up a Syrian peace conference produced no deal, as the two powers failed to agree when the talks should be held or who would be invited.
U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi urged the United States and Russia to help "contain this situation that is getting out of hand, not only in Syria but also in the region."
Reuters contributed to this report.