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How did Syria’s rebels get their hands on powerful new weapons?

Free Syrian Army fighters pray inside a cave at Jabal al-Zaweya in Idlib, Syria, Feb. 24, 2013. Syrian rebels used captured tanks to launch a fresh offensive on a government complex housing a police academy near Aleppo and clashed with government troops protecting the strategic installation on Sunday.

Hussein Malla/AP

A long-standing complaint from rebels affiliated with the so-called Free Syrian Army has been that they lack weapons and ammunition with which to fight. In some parts of Syria that seems to be changing.

Earlier this month video footage (whose origin, as with all Syrian video, cannot be verified) appeared on the internet showing rebels holding Chinese FN-6 shoulder-fired missiles believed to have been in Syria's eastern Deir Ez Zour region. It's the first time that complete weapons of this type have been seen in rebel hands. It's also the first sign that weapons of such a calibre are thought to have come from outside Syria, and not looted from government stores, as has become typical.

"These Chinese MANPADS are a real mystery, as far as I can gather they aren't used in Syria, or any neighbouring countries, so it seems to point to them being supplied from outside the country," said Eliot Higgins, whose Brown Moses blog tracks the arms used in the Syrian conflict, in a Skype interview.

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MANPADS or Man-Portable Air Defence Systems are shoulder-fired, heat-seeking or laser-guided rockets capable of taking down low-flying passenger jets.

"The question is who is supplying them, because in my mind it's not going to be a government. I don't see the U.S. signing off on any of their friends and allies supplying MANPADS to the opposition," said Higgins.

Other examples of powerful new weapon types being used by rebels are the M79 Osa anti-tank weapon, the RBG-6 grenade launcher and M60 recoil-less guns seen being used most recently in the southern Damascus suburbs on February 3 and which likely came to Syria through Jordan.

We know a U.S. task force deployed to Jordan last summer has been focusing on helping Jordan cope with the increasing exodus of Syrian refugees and further fallout from events over the northern border. One wonders what, if anything, they know of where these state-of-the-art weapons are coming from. The Washington Post reported on Feb. 23 that "even those receiving the weapons can't say with certainty who is supplying them."

Collectively, these new additions show us that opponents of the Syrian regime increasingly have the means to take the war to a new level. The fact that the regime has in recent weeks resorted to firing SCUD missiles into areas of northern Syria – instead of continuing to use military helicopters and MIGs as it has for much of the past year – may mean these new weapons are already changing the way the conflict is being fought, and its eventual outcome.

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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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