Arming Syria rebels easier said than done

(CBS News) LONDON -- Rebel fighters inside Syria tell CBS News they welcomed the prospect of the U.S. getting more involved to help them in their fight against President Bashar Assad's forces and international backers.

They couldn't quite believe what they were hearing. The announcement came at a crucial time for the rebels. They're struggling to keep morale up in the face of weapons and ammunition shortages, after being dealt a decisive military blow with their defeat in the strategic town of Qusair. That defeat also marked the first time that fighters from the Iranian-backed, Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah -- branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. -- openly fought alongside the Syrian army in significant numbers.

With a large-scale government offensive now imminent in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, rebels are fearful they might lose more vital pockets of territory. Direct involvement from the U.S. might just provide them with the lifeline they desperately need right now.

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The rebels have been warning for some time that they don't stand a chance against President Assad's forces -- who enjoy the full support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah -- without greater backing from their allies in the West.

Rebel leaders were to meet again with Western officials Friday in Turkey to stress that message. With their repeated warnings that Iran and Hezbollah are poised to gain significant traction in the region if the opposition loses, the rebels have struck the West's Achilles heel.

Some are skeptical that the decision to adopt a more muscular policy in Syria has anything to do with the Assad government's alleged use of chemical weapons. According to the White House's own assessment, Assad's chemical weapons have killed somewhere in the region of 100 people, of the more than 92,000 killed during the two-year-plus war.

The question now is whether the rebels will get the heavy anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons they say they need to bring down the Assad dictatorship. This would be a complex undertaking, to say the least.

The rebels are fragmented and disorganized. There is a lack of cohesion and coherence among the many different groups, and there are looming fears that heavy weaponry could get into the hands of extremist groups with ties to al Qaeda, who have joined the uprising in significant numbers.

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It's worth noting that in its remarks to journalists on Friday, the White House would not say what weapons it was planning to provide the rebels, or when it would begin handing them over. A U.S. diplomat confirmed to CBS News at the beginning of June that even American shipments of non-lethal aid to the rebels were still "at least" weeks away.

Many civilians in Syria are simply hoping for an end to what they call "the terror from the skies": the relentless bombardment of civilian areas by Assad's helicopter gunships and fighter jets. They are hoping for some type of no-fly zone to be established, a safe haven where they might seek refuge.

This isn't a simple prospect, either. Assad's army has a good air defense system and the Russians are believed to be poised to send them a more sophisticated system of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's top adviser on foreign policy said Friday that Russia wasn't considering sending the S-300 systems to Syria, at least "not yet," and he scoffed at the White House announcement, saying the intelligence of chemical weapons use does "not look convincing."

The adviser, Yuri Ushakov, also warned that U.S. military support for the Syrian opposition would undermine efforts to get both sides to the negotiating table for a conference slated to take place in Geneva next month.

CBSNews.com special report: After the Arab Spring

  • Clarissa Ward

    Foreign Correspondent, CBS News

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