BEIRUT, AMMAN // The United States has increased direct funding to rebel groups fighting in Damascus and southern Syria, ramping up pressure on president Bashar Al Assad after negotiations in Geneva ended in deadlock.
Last week, as the Syrian regime delegation in Switzerland vowed there would be "no concessions" to the opposition, US officials were handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars to Syrian rebel commanders in Jordan, according to opposition fighters.
“From now until the next round of talks in Geneva, Assad will be under real pressure — he will feel more pressure from opposition forces,” a rebel field commander cited a US official as saying.
The injection of funding from Washington comes on top of a major push by Arabian Gulf states to finance rebel operations in the southern region of Syria, including the war to control the capital, Damascus.
More than US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) has been paid out since the summer, much of it for weapons purchases in Eastern Europe, according to sources connected with Gulf governments, which are bankrolling the effort.
On Saturday, less than 48 hours after getting the funds from US officials, rebels launched a new military campaign called Geneva Horan, involving 68 rebel units in southern Syria.
Horan is the name of fertile plains near the Jordanian border and the frontier with Israel, the broad area in which Syria’s uprising began as peaceful protests in March 2011, before descending into civil war.
The latest round of negotiations, known as Geneva 2, finished on January 31, with UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, the opposition and regime delegations, and their respective backers in the US and Russia, all admitting there had been no concrete progress.
Further talks have been tentatively scheduled to start in Geneva on February 10, although Mr Al Assad has yet to commit to the meeting.
While hopes for a breakthrough at Geneva 2 had been minimal, the complete lack of movement, particularly on gaining access for humanitarian aid to areas besieged by regime forces, left US and Gulf officials little choice but to boost support for rebels, Syrian opposition members who met foreign officials, said.
A rebel commander said one Saudi official involved in procuring the weapons told him: “If the sieges are not lifted by the regime, we will have to break them.”
In the run up to last month’s Geneva talks, Russia reportedly increased supplies of military hardware to Mr Al Assad, bolstering his position on the ground. Moscow and Tehran have been unequivocal supporters of the Syrian regime, in what has become a proxy war, pitting them against Gulf states, and a much less committed US and Europe.
US officials have also expressed their frustration at the slow progress of Syria’s hand over of chemical weapons, something Mr Al Assad agreed to in September, to avoid US air strikes following poison gas attacks on rebel-held neighbourhoods to the east and south of Damascus.
Gulf states have rushed in weapon supplies and ammunition to units fighting in the Geneva Horan offensive, according to rebels. No US-made weapons have been supplied but, rebels said, US and Gulf officials told them they would start to receive high-quality weaponry over the next two weeks.
Rebels in southern Syria, including Deraa, Damascus and the countryside around the capital, say the US official told them last week that funding from Washington had been assured for nine months.
That time frame largely coincides with details of closed-door congressional approval for funding to Syria’s armed opposition until September, reported by Reuters last month.
Exactly how much money Washington plans to give rebel forces as part of a renewed injection of resources is unclear. According to numbers given by rebel commanders, the figure could be at least $31.5m for the southern area — excluding money for weapons and other supplies.
That would cover payments of a $50 monthly salary for 70,000 rebel fighters over the nine months, something opposition commanders have sought for their units.
Extremist groups, including Al Qaeda factions, have not risen to the kind of prominence in southern Syria that they have established in the north and east of the country, making it easier to ensure weapons supplied to the rebels do not fall into the hands of hardliners.
The National in December revealed details about an operations centre in the headquarters of Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate (GID), staffed by military officers from the US, Europe and Arab states, which has sought to coordinate weapons supplies to the opposition.
Officially known as the MOC — Military Operations Command — it has been involved in this latest injection of US support, rebels said.
Jordan denies the centre exists and says it is not involved in any activity to support or arm the Syrian opposition. Rebels planning the Geneva Horan offensive said it had taken more than a month to devise and would have gone ahead regardless of any extra US or Gulf support.
The availability of additional supplies and funding gives it a greater chance of successfully hitting a list of 46 targets, rebel commanders said.
“There are no more soft targets left in the south, the work is immense and we must coordinate our attacks and hit multiple targets simultaneously if it is to work,” said a rebel field commander involved in the operation.
In preparation for civilians fleeing the intensified combat over the coming weeks, more than 15,000 tents are being put up for emergency accommodation in locations in southern Syria, rebels said.
Millions of Syrians have become refugees throughout the course of the three-year confrontation in which more than 136,000 people have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The MOC, which gives military advice to rebel units, has urged them to focus on gaining control of important roads and to break through regime siege fronts, including those around Damascus, in this latest push, the rebel commander said.
For months, opposition fighters in the southern region and around the capital have been largely focused on knocking out small checkpoints and holding their ground, rather than attempting to make strategic gains.
Alongside information about new US funding, rebels in southern Syria also gave details about money coming in from Gulf states — sums that apparently dwarf Washington’s spending.
At least $1.2bn from Gulf governments has been pumped into supplying Syrian rebels in the south since July, sources involved with the funding programme said.
That amount is set to rise to as much as $2bn, with Saudi Arabia, which oversees the fund according to rebels, seeking to put in between $400m and $800m in additional money over coming months.
“The money moves through a Saudi account, administered by a very senior official and Saudi intelligence, and they buy the weapons in Eastern Europe,” said a senior Syrian rebel privy to the workings of the supply chain.
Russian-made weapons and munitions, including anti-tank missiles, mortar bombs, artillery shells and small arms, are purchased in the name of the Jordanian military, the rebel said, then shipped and stored in three major warehouses in Jordan.
Jordan’s GID then co-ordinates the transfer of weapons to rebels, in cooperation with the MOC, involving US, Arab and some European states, Syrian rebels say.