Middle East

How outside help is aiding Syria's rebels

Syrian in Lebanon hold a candlelight vigil in Beirut on 12 February 2012 to show their support for the Syrian people and against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad
Image caption Lebanon is one of the routes for aiding the rebels

The situation in Syria has never looked bleaker nor closer to civil war.

Almost a year after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's government began, Syrian security forces have stepped up military operations to crush the opposition movement in key cities and towns.

In Homs, the centre of the revolution, the security forces are now using heavy weapons including artillery, rockets and mortars to bombard residential areas.

The result: in less than a fortnight, more than 400 people have been killed, including women and many children, according to opposition activists.

The BBC'S Paul Wood, who witnessed the onslaught at first hand, has returned with stories of extraordinary brutality.

He was shown a video taken from the phone of a member of the feared government paramilitary force, the Shabiha.

In the video, prisoners are systematically beheaded as they lie on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs.

In response, rebel fighters say if they catch members of the Shabiha, they kill them.

Meanwhile, the hand-wringing continues within the international community.

Image caption The Syrian rebels are believed to include several distinct groupings

The latest Arab League proposal for a joint UN-Arab peacekeeping mission for Syria is more a mark of desperation about what to do than an idea that could be implemented in the current circumstances.

Already foreign military intervention has been ruled out partly because of concerns about the impact on the wider region, while diplomatic action in the UN Security Council is being blocked by Russia and China.

And although officials say the situation in Syria is a "human tragedy on a large scale", the idea of setting up humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones has been described by one Western diplomat as "not realistic" because they would need to be protected.

There is also reluctance among Western countries to start arming and training the Syrian rebels because it might tip Syria into a full-blown civil war.

Smuggling routes

But where Western countries now fear to tread, others seem to be stepping in.

The BBC has been told by a well-placed source who did not wish to be named that traditional smuggling routes through Iraq have been used since last autumn to ferry money to rebel fighters inside Syria.

It is alleged the money is coming from Saudi Arabia, after members of the Shammar tribe in eastern Syria who have joined the uprising against President Assad appealed for help from their fellow tribesmen in Saudi Arabia.

The smuggling routes pass through the Iraqi provinces of al-Anbar and Nineveh, where the long desert border with Syria is easy to cross.

In a recent interview with the AFP news agency, Iraq's deputy interior minister Adnan al-Assadi confirmed these routes were also being used for smuggling weapons and Iraqi militants who want to fight alongside the Syrian rebels.

"The weapons are transported from Baghdad to Nineveh," he said. "And the prices of weapons in Mosul (the province's capital) are higher now because they are being sent to the opposition in Syria."

The movement of militants from Iraq into Syria could increase following the release of a video on Saturday by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he called on Muslims across the region to support the Syrian uprising.

The Syrian rebels, who are believed to include several distinct groupings, including ordinary people protecting their communities, army defectors and militant Islamists, are also reported to have been buying weapons from Lebanon.

This is more difficult than the Iraqi route, but sources say an Islamist group based in northern Lebanon may itself be funnelling some supplies and fighters into Syria.

But in reality, the current supply routes through Iraq and Lebanon are extremely unlikely to make much difference on the ground where the rebels face a well-equipped army of more than 200,000 soldiers.

What is not clear at the moment is whether key members of the Arab League will now consider providing weapons and training for the Syrian opposition, having pledged at their meeting in Cairo on Sunday to provide "all forms of political and material support" to the opposition.

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