WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters in Syria in a drive to break the bloody stalemate that has allowed President Bashar Assad to cling to power, the New York Times reported Monday, citing unnamed American and Western officials familiar with the purchases.
The weapons began reaching rebels in December via shipments shuttled through Jordan, the officials said, and have been a factor in the rebels' small tactical gains this winter against the army and militias loyal to Assad.
The arms transfers appeared to signal a shift among several governments to a more activist approach to assisting Syria's armed opposition, in part as an effort to counter shipments of weapons from Iran to Assad's forces. The weapons' distribution has been principally to armed groups viewed as nationalist and secular, and appears to have been intended to bypass the jihadist groups whose roles in the war have alarmed Western and regional powers.
For months, regional and Western capitals have held back on arming the rebels, in part out of fear that the weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists. But officials said the decision to send in more weapons is aimed at another fear in the West about the role of jihadist groups in the opposition. Such groups have been seen as better equipped than many nationalist fighters and potentially more influential.
The action also signals the recognition among the rebels' Arab and Western backers that the opposition's success in pushing Assad's military from much of Syria's northern countryside by the middle of last year gave way to a grinding campaign in which the opposition remains outgunned and the human costs climb.
Washington's role in the shipments, if any, is not clear. Officials in Europe and the United States, including those at the CIA, cited the sensitivity of the shipments and declined to comment publicly.
But one senior U.S. official, according to the New York Times, noted that the opposition remains fragmented and operationally incoherent, and added that the recent Saudi purchase was not in and of itself a tipping point.
Officials said the arms were part of an undeclared surplus in Croatia remaining from the 1990s Balkan wars. One Western official said the shipments included thousands of rifles and hundreds of machine guns and an unknown quantity of ammunition.