By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels have received advanced weapons aimed at narrowing the arms gap with President Bashar al-Assad's forces and reinforcing a new rebel military command which Western countries hope can dilute the strength of Islamist fighters.
Several rebel commanders and fighters told Reuters that a shipment which reached Syria via Turkey last month comprised shoulder-held and other mobile equipment including anti-aircraft and armor-piercing weapons, mortars and rocket launchers.
Rebels told Reuters the weapons, along with money for cash payments for fighters, were being distributed through a new command structure, part of a plan by foreign backers to centralize control over rebel units and check Islamists linked to al-Qaeda. However, in a sign of the difficulty in uniting disparate fighting groups, some rebels said they had turned down the arms and refused to submit to the new command.
While not nearly enough to tip the military balance against Assad, who is able to deploy air power, missiles and artillery to devastating effect against rebel areas, any significant arms shipment is a boost to rebels who have long complained about the lack of international support.
The rebels refused to specify who supplied the new weapons, saying they did not want to embarrass foreign supporters, but said they had arrived openly via Turkey "from donor countries".
"We have received this shipment legally and normally. It was not delivered through smuggling routes but formally through Bab al-Hawa crossing," said a rebel commander in Homs province, referring to a rebel-held crossing with Turkey.
"But it is not enough to help us win," he told Reuters by Skype. "Another shipment has arrived in Turkey but we haven't received it yet," he added, saying he believed foreign donors were waiting for the Syrian opposition to form a transitional government to work with the rebel command.
The political opposition will meet in Istanbul on Saturday to choose a prime minister in the transitional government, which is also supposed to choose a civilian defense minister - creating the basic structure for a future state and army.
The Syrian revolt erupted nearly two years ago, starting with peaceful protests for reform but developing into an armed insurgency and then civil war as Assad responded to the uprising with ever-growing force. The United Nations estimates that 70,000 people have been killed in the relentless violence.
Although many countries backed Assad's opponents, few have actively supported arming the rebels, fearing that weapons might end up in the hands of hardline Sunni Muslim militants and lead to a repeat of Western conflicts, such as the wars against the Taliban in Afghanistan and al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Iraq.
So far rebels have relied mainly on light weapons smuggled from neighboring countries, many of them financed or sent from sympathizers in Gulf states, and from supplies seized from captured army bases inside Syria.
But video footage and pictures from across the country appear to support assertions that advanced weapons - with origins as varied as the former Yugoslavia and China - have ended up in rebel hands.
A Reuters photographer in Damascus over the last month saw several Western-built rebel firearms- including U.S. pattern M4 and Austrian Steyr assault rifles - that almost certainly came from outside the country.
STRENGTHENING REBEL COMMAND
Assad's strongest regional supporter has been Shi'ite Muslim Iran, while the leading campaigners for arming the rebels are the Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab powers Qatar and Saudi Arabia, reflecting the strong sectarian currents of the Syrian uprising.
Although Saudi Arabia and Qatar do not discuss specific weapons shipments to the rebels, both countries have been open about their support for arming them in principle.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal bluntly told a news conference in Riyadh on February 12: "My country believes that the brutality of the Syrian regime against its own people requires empowering the people to defend itself."
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani said last week: "As there is no clear international opinion to end the crisis in Syria...we are supporting the opposition with whatever it needs, even if it takes up arms for self-defense."
Western countries have been more cautious, and have so far committed publicly to sending only "non-lethal" aid, like radios and body armor.
International powers are alarmed by the growing influence of Islamist hardliners in a country which lies at the crossroads of the Middle East between Iraq, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. They have made efforts to unite Syrian rebels under a clear leadership. A body was formed in December to bring the rebel units, or brigades, together under a unified command.
"One of the reasons for the change in the donors' minds is that they want to empower the new military command. They want to help it organize the weapons and the fighters," said an aide to a rebel commander in a province which has seen some of the heaviest fighting.
"If the brigades join then they get their share of these weapons and also monthly payment for the fighters."
The new military command divides Syria into five fronts - southern, western, eastern, northern and central.
"Each front has received its share. All equally distributed," the rebel said, adding that 'payment' for the weapons would come in the form of post-conflict reconstruction contracts in Syria awarded to countries that helped.
"So basically it's like we have paid in advance. It is funded by the countries that will be involved in reconstruction of Syria," he said.
But in a sign of the continued divisions among Assad's foes, some rebels complain that the "military councils" who received the weapons - and are seen by the West as more likely allies than the hardline Islamists - were the wrong groups to arm.
"There is a dispute in Damascus. The people who received these weapons are not the real fighters. They gave it to the military council which is not fighting," said a rebel commander operating around the Syrian capital. "We are the ones that are on the frontline and we are the fighters."
He said his fighters had rejected an offer of weapons in return for their allegiance to the military councils.
"There was a meeting and they asked for our brigade to join so they will give us between 10 to 20 rockets and armor-piercing ammunition and other stuff," he said. "They wanted everything to be under their supervision, but we refused."
"They are giving these weapons to people to allow them to create a (fighting) presence on the ground. Why don't they give it to people who already have a presence?"
Another commander said he would have no qualms about seizing weapons destined for rebels nominally fighting on the same side as him, if he knew they were passing through his territory.
REBELS NEED "ARMS, NOT MEN"
Several fighters from across the country who spoke to Reuters in February said they feared the ultimate plan of outside powers was to push the rebel Free Syrian Army and other "moderate" Islamist fighters into confrontation with radicals.
Fighters from hardline groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham have waged some of the deadliest attacks in Syria, including car bombings in Damascus, Aleppo and elsewhere. Their ranks have been swollen by jihadi fighters from around the Muslim world.
The chief of staff of the rebel military command, Brigadier Selim Idris, said the presence of foreign fighters was hindering international support for the battle against Assad.
"We call all brothers from all the countries. Please, my brothers: we do not need men. Stay in your own countries and do something good inside your own countries," he told Reuters.
"If you want to help us just send us weapons or funding - or even pray for us. But you do not have to come to Syria. We have enough Syrian men fighting."
Idris denied receiving weapons from donors and said that weapons are still entering Syria through the black market - apparently reluctant to put foreign powers in the spotlight.
"We are not receiving weapons from the Europeans, we do not want to embarrass them, we do not want to embarrass anyone with the weapons issue," he said.
Previous attempts to unify Syria's divided rebels have foundered on local rivalries and competition for money and influence. Some have grown rich and powerful by smuggling weapons, medical supplies, food and diesel, while the lack of civil administration in rebel controlled areas has also encouraged the proliferation of autonomous rebel groups.
Seeking to address those divisions, the military councils hope to pay fighters a symbolic monthly salary of $100, funded in part by donations from the Gulf. The Homs commander said one Gulf state had recently paid $15 million towards their wages.
"They want to organize the rebels and have them all under one command - who joins will be eligible to receive the money and the weapons," he said. "This is all for organization purposes."
"If a brigade joins then it will take its share, if it doesn't, then no weapons. We want to be organized," he said.
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff)