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Officials: Arms shipments double to Syrian rebels

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"This way opens a new front in southern Syria. It breaks free from connections with Saudi and Lebanese middlemen (in Turkey), while ensuring the weapons get to those rebels with secular, or nationalist ties, rather than the jihadists," he said.

Sweden-based arms trafficking expert Hugh Griffiths, who has been monitoring the arms flow and collecting independent data, said some 3,500 tons of military equipment have been shipped to the rebels since the traffic began in early 2012. He said there were at least 160 airlifts of weapons deliveries from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and later Jordan, with the most recent being a shipment of unspecified material from Qatar to Turkey on Sunday.

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"Nothing compares in terms of the intensity of these flights over months-long periods at a time," said Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Two prominent independent researchers monitoring weapons traffic — Eliot Higgins in Britain and Nic Jenzen-Jones in Australia — said Croatian arms began appearing only recently in Syria. They include M60 recoilless guns, M79 Osa rocket launchers, and RBG-6 grenade launchers, which all are powerful anti-tank weapons.

Griffiths said the Croatian arms are a "major game changer." He said they are "portable, but pack a much bigger explosive punch."

The question will be whether the arms influx will tip the balance if rebels do launch an offensive for Damascus — and whether the attempt to boost more moderate rebels over Islamists will be effective.

Syrian opposition activists estimate there are 15-20 different brigades fighting in and around Damascus now, each with up to 150 fighters. Many of them have Islamic tendencies and bear black-and-white Islamic flags or al-Qaida-style flags on their Facebook pages. There is also a presence of Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the strongest Islamic militant groups fighting alongside the rebels. In the Damascus area, the al-Nusra fighters are active mostly in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, but the presence is not as strong as it is in the north and east.

Capt. Islam Alloush, a spokesman for Liwaa al-Islam, a prominent rebel brigade with an Islamist ideology that is operating outside Damascus, denied any arms were being smuggled into southern Syria. "If there are any weapons being brought in, it would be from the north," he said.

Still, he said rebels were gearing up for the battle for Damascus. "We have been preparing for it for a long time. We have our own strategy," he said. "God willing, the battle for Damascus will begin soon."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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