By Mariam Karouny
ISTANBUL, June 13 (Reuters) - Newly armed with mortars, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades smuggled across borders by truck and donkey, Syria's rebels are now ready to step up their fight against President Bashar al-Assad.
Rebel fighters say they have taken advantage of a shaky truce to regroup against a Syrian army that is showing signs of poor morale, desertions and equipment failure.
Thousand of shells and hundreds of sniper rifles, as well as anti-armour missiles, have been smuggled in via Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq in recent weeks, much of them from suppliers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, fighters and opposition figures say.
Although the rebels say these additional weapons are not enough for them to topple Assad, they may have been a factor in the insurgents' announcement last week that they were abandoning the failing truce and resuming attacks on government targets.
"Now the Free Army has more sophisticated weapons. We still have less than we need but it is entering the country," said a fighter in the north-western province of Idlib.
"It still does not cover all we need because the number of fighters is increasing. Thousands of soldiers are still waiting in Turkey for weapons," he said.
Some areas are stronger than others, with Idlib province the best equipped and organised, the rebels say.
"It is the headquarters of the Free Army right now. It is almost a buffer zone, almost independent. Most of the Free Army soldiers go there because it is close to Turkey," said a fighter from another province who asked that his location not be disclosed.
"The regime cannot take on Idlib right now. It is using helicopters because it has suffered many losses recently there."
Rebels have killed scores of soldiers, including in Idlib, in the last 10 days after stepping up their campaign. Video footage released by activists has shown burning hulks of tanks and armoured personnel carriers destroyed by their new weapons.
"Recently a lot of weapons have entered Syria. We are getting ready and we will create a balance of horror. The days when hundreds of us are killed will be soon over. In my city we have received at least 10,000 rockets and 100 sniper rifles."
"What is left for (Assad)? Using planes? We will get weapons for that too. Nothing will stop us now. The world has decided to finally get rid of him and we are ready."
Opposition fighters are now staging more audacious offensives on state security, including the temporary seizure over the weekend of a strategic army base in Homs province which housed several surface-to-air missiles.
The Free Syrian Army rebels were forced to withdraw from the al-Ghanto base by an army counter-offensive - leaving the missiles in place but taking looted machine guns and ammunition.
Rebels - described by Assad as foreign-backed terrorists - say they are ready to "liberate" some towns but are still considering whether they can hold them without the protection of an international buffer zone or a no-fly zone to sideline Assad's air force.
Mohamed Sermini, a member of the Syrian National Council, the opposition umbrella group, who has travelled to Syria to meet rebel fighters, called for the insurgents to be supplied with anti-aircraft missiles.
"Weapons have entered Syria recently but it is not enough," he said. "We have medium-sized and individual weapons but not enough missiles."
Some of the arms reaching the rebels are provided by defectors who are now fleeing the army in greater numbers with heavy weapons. But most of the arms come from Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The fighters say they have now better AK47 assault rifles and more mortars.
"Some Western countries have promised us to help with arming us but so far it is only promises," said a senior rebel who declined to be named.
"Qatar and Saudi are of great help when it comes to this. It is not the state of Qatar or Saudi that is sending us the weapons directly. It is individuals that are sending us the weapons but with the blessing of these two states," he said.
Other rebels confirmed his information.
A TIRED ARMY
Another factor playing into the hands of the Free Army is the exhaustion creeping into the Syrian army, equipped with weapons which date back to the 1970s.
Sermini said that 50 percent of the army's tanks are not working, many officers want to defect and some are in prison.
"The Assad army looks coherent but it is not. If countries really care about freeing the Syrian people from Assad's thugs then at least they should send us anti-aircraft and anti-tank (weapons) which will help determine the battle," he said.
Free Syrian Army spokesman Sami al-Kurdi said Assad was depending on a loyal core made up of the Republican Guards, the Fourth Armoured Division and the 15th Brigade for breaking into towns and cities to crush the rebels.
"Those who are fighting are those loyal to him one million percent ... The assault units are different from the checkpoint units. They know that the checkpoint units will defect if they send them in to confront the Free Army fighters."
To address this, Assad was dragging more members of his Alawite community into the conflict, he said.
"Now the regime is planting its tanks around villages that are loyal to him and forcing them to take part in the fighting. He is now depending more on the Shabbiha (militia) because he knows it is only a matter of time before the army collapses."
"There have been lots of defections recently - before there used to be one or two defecting but now there are large numbers. We feel more want to defect but are waiting for the buffer zone in order to safeguard their families," Kurdi said.
A fighter in Rastan said: "The rebels are now better prepared and well equipped not only to defend but also to launch attacks on the regime forces." He said the truce, announced in April, had helped them catch their breath.
"Whatever weapon you can think of, we have it now, except those used to attack planes. We are well equipped now and ready for him," he said, adding the rebels had regrouped after being driven out of the Baba Amr district of Homs three months ago.
"What happened in Baba Amr almost broke us and our young men were tired and exhausted, but now we are in better condition. We are much better now." (Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Giles Elgood)
BEFORE YOU GO
07/13/2012 1:00 PM EDT
Car Bomb In Damascus
Syrian policemen inspect the site of a car bomb explosion on Mazzeh highway in the capital Damascus on July 13, 2012. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/GettyImages)
07/13/2012 12:00 PM EDT
Susan Rice Condemns Killings
U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice tweets:
@ AmbassadorRice :
#Syria regime turned artillery, tanks and helicopters on its own men & women. It unleashed knife-wielding shabiha gangs on its own children.
07/13/2012 11:58 AM EDT
Russia Condemns Massacre
Russia says international envoy Kofi Annan will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria. Russia also called for an inquiry into an alleged massacre that took place in the village of Tramseh on Thursday. "We have no doubt that this wrongdoing serves the interests of those powers that are not seeking peace but persistently seek to sow the seeds of interconfessional and civilian conflict on Syrian soil," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters. Moscow did not apportion blame for the killings.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/13/2012 11:55 AM EDT
Footage Of Massacre Aftermath (WARNING: VIDEO CONTAINS DISTURBING IMAGES)
The Associated Press obtained a video that purports to show the aftermath of an alleged massacre in the village of Tramseh, near Hama.
07/13/2012 9:34 AM EDT
How Do Syrian Fighters Get Their Arms?
How do Syria's fighters get their arms? An overview put together by Reuters explains that there are three gateways to the country -- Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
Syrian rebels are smuggling small arms into Syria through a network of land and sea routes involving cargo ships and trucks moving through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, maritime intelligence and Free Syrian Army (FSA) officers say.
Western and regional powers deny any suggestion they are involved in gun running. Their interest in the sensitive border region lies rather in screening to ensure powerful weapons such as surface to air missiles do not find their way to Islamist or other militants.
Read the full report here.
07/13/2012 9:10 AM EDT
Activists Report New Massacre (WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a victim wounded by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The accounts, some of which claim more than 200 people were killed in the violence Thursday, could not be independently confirmed, but would mark the latest in a string of brutal offensives by Syrian forces attempting to crush the rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN, purports to show a man mourning a victim killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northwest of the central city of Hama, Thursday, July 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)
07/12/2012 6:50 PM EDT
Hama Revolutionary Council: More Than 220 Killed
According to the Hama Revolutionary Council, a Syrian opposition group, more than 220 people have been killed in a new alleged massacre in Taramseh. Earlier reports said more than 100 people were killed. "More than 220 people fell today in Taramseh," the Council said in a statement. "They died from bombardment by tanks and helicopters, artillery shelling and summary executions."
Fadi Sameh, an opposition activist from Taramseh, told Reuters he had left the town before the reported massacre but was in touch with residents. "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Taramseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling," Sameh claimed.
Read more on Reuters.com.
07/12/2012 6:17 PM EDT
Syrian State TV: 'Large Numbers Of Terrorists Killed'
Syrian activist Rami Jarrah tweets that Syrian State TV has confirmed deaths in Tremseh. "Terrorists" is often the term used by the Syrian regime for opposition forces.
@ AlexanderPageSY :
Syrian State TV: clashes between security apparatus & terrorists in #Tremseh of #Hama leaves large numbers of terrorists killed #Syria
07/12/2012 5:36 PM EDT
Update: Death Toll In New Massacre Reportedly More Than 200
@ Reuters :
UPDATE: DEATH TOLL IN SYRIAN FORCES' ATTACK ON VILLAGE IN SYRIA'S HAMA REGION IS MORE THAN 200, MOSTLY CIVILIANS - OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS