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Rebels now better equipped in Syrian conflict, arms tracker says

A boy loads a truck with the remains from his shop after it was damaged by what activists say was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad, Deir al-Zor, April 17, 2013.

Khalil Ashawi/REUTERS

The release last week of a Human Rights Watch report accusing the Syrian government of targeting civilians in air strikes, and British calls this week for an investigation of Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons in the civil war, has once again highlighted concerns about the weapons used by both sides in the two-year conflict. The Syrian government's arms caches are thought to be vast, while the flow of modern weapons to rebel groups has picked up in recent months. But mapping which weapons are being used, and by whom, has proved difficult.

Eliot Higgins, who authors the Brown Moses blog from the sitting room of his home in Leicester, England, says that as the fighting grinds on, the Syrian military has resorted to cluster bombs and more use of helicopters. Rebel units are getting access to ever more sophisticated arms, including mobile surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank missiles. It is "inevitable," he adds, that some of those weapons will end up in the hands of radical Islamist militias. That is precisely the fear of Western governments that want Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go, but fear that openly arming the insurgents will empower the radicals.

Mr. Higgins wades through the hundreds of video clips emerging from the conflict each day, seeking out footage that offers clues to the types of weapons being used. Earlier this year, for instance, Mr. Higgins collated video footage of state-of-the-art weapons used by rebels in southern Syria, data that was cited in a New York Times investigative report on arms flows from Croatia and elsewhere into Syria.

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He responded to The Globe and Mail's questions by e-mail. The answers have been edited and condensed.

How has the movement of weapons in Syria changed since you started tracking? Are rebels getting their hands on more sophisticated weaponry?

As the conflict has progressed, the opposition has captured more and more equipment from military bases, and at this point in certain areas of the country they have access to artillery, MANPADS [shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missiles], tanks, wire-guided anti-tank missiles and a whole range of other equipment. In the south, the rebels were comparatively poorly equipped until the arrival of Croatian weapons helped them gain ground. Some of these weapons have since spread around the country, based on video footage from rebels I've seen.

You have followed the government's use of weapons since March, 2012. Are there any signs it is running out of weapons?

What I've seen is a gradual escalation by the government, seemingly in response to events on the ground. Helicopters appeared to be a response to the use of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] by rebels, which prevented the movement of government troops. Then cluster bombs started to be used widely after a key highway in Idlib was captured by rebels. So the use of new weapons doesn't appear to be a sign of ammunition running out, but a reaction to the progression of the conflict, and I think it's not unreasonable to say that this escalation by the government may reflect a belief in the government that they aren't winning.

Could foreign-funded weapons end up in the hands of Islamic extremists?

It seems almost inevitable with the groups receiving these weapons fighting side-by-side with Islamic groups. My research shows much of the Croatian weapons haul is still in Jordan and if more are sent into Syria, as expected, it's likely they will find their way into extremists' hands. However, it should be considered that the Croatian weapons provided are generally not something anyone would be able to easily acquire ammunition for; they are not something that are common on the black market, so if the people providing the ammunition cut this supply, the weapons would become useless tubes of metal.

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With no experience of weapons tracking, how did you become interested in monitoring the flow of weapons in Syria?

When I started the blog, it was really about writing about little things that had been overlooked in the mainstream press. Much of that came from social media, and the vast number of videos coming from Syria meant I spent an increasing amount of time writing about weapons. The main reasons I started to make so many posts on weapons is that they are pretty difficult to fake, and reflect an interesting aspect of the conflict. … One of my goals is to raise enough money to have all the posts I write on Syria translated into Arabic, as a lot of what I write about is not reported in that language, as far as I can tell.

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About the Author

Stephen Starr lived in Syria for five years until February 2012 and covered the revolt as a freelance journalist. He is the author of' Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising'. More

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