GORENTAS, Turkey (AP) — Syrian rebel commander Ahmad Mihbzt and his ragtag fighters grabbed their aging rifles to fight Syrian troops advancing on their village, but soon fled under a rain of exploding artillery shells.
“We will fight until our last drop of blood,” Mihbzt declared a week later in this village across the Turkish border. “We just withdrew because we ran out of ammunition.”
Like Mihbzt’s men, rebels across Syria fighting to topple President Bashar Assad lack the weapons that can pose a serious challenge to the regime’s large, professional army. Some rebel units have more fighters than guns, forcing them to take turns fighting. Because of ammunition shortages, some fire automatic rifles one shot at a time, counting each bullet.
Rebel leaders and anti-regime activists say rising gun prices and more tightly controlled borders are making it harder for them to acquire arms and smuggle them into Syria. This could tip the already unbalanced military equation of Syria’s year-old uprising further in the regime’s favor.
The opposition has suffered a series of military setbacks as regime forces have repeatedly routed them in their strongholds, most recently the eastern city of Deir al-Zour on Tuesday.
The weapons shortage has grown so acute that the opposition’s disorganized leadership say only military aid can stop Assad’s forces. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya have spoken positively of the idea, but no country is known to be arming the rebels. The United States and many European countries have rejected sending weapons, fearing that it would fuel a civil war.
The weapons problems reflect the fractured, haphazard nature of the rebel movement. The uprising began a year ago with peaceful protests demanding political reform, inspired by the successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Since then, Assad has waged a withering crackdown.
In response, some in the opposition began to take up arms to defend their towns and attack government troops. The local militias and breakaway units from the Syrian army mostly identify with the Free Syrian Army, a loose-knit umbrella group, but they operate independent of each other. The groups, numbering anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred men, are largely on their own in finding weapons and supplies.
Defectors from the army, mostly low-level soldiers, bring arms and know-how with them. Most have only light weapons, such as Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Rebel coordinators say groups have looted heavier weapons from army caches, and activist videos posted online show anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank missiles. But heavy weapons remain rare and have not significantly boosted rebel capabilities.
Smuggling from neighboring countries was key earlier in the conflict. But rebels and anti-regime activists now say Syrian forces have mined many of the smuggling routes from Turkey and Lebanon, and the Turkish and Jordanian governments have tightened border controls to avoid being pulled into the conflict.
Rebel frustrations are clear in the string of poor Turkish villages across Syria’s northern border where more than 16,000 Syrians live in refugee camps. The camps host hundreds of rebel fighters seeking to regroup as well as smugglers who trade in livestock, cigarettes and gasoline.
Last week, some 200 rebels with light arms in the Syrian hill village of Janoudiyeh were no match for Assad’s forces, which shelled the area before sending in troops, said Mihbzt, the rebel commander.
His forces fled across the border, about 6 miles from town, and into Turkey. But rising gun prices and strict border controls prevent his men from rearming, he said. So they plan to target border sentries to seize their arms or loot Syrian arms depots.
Other fighters who have found refuge in Turkey reported similar frustrations.
“We were forced to fire single shots in clashes because we don’t have enough ammunition,” said Majdi Hamdo. “I have two magazines for my Kalashnikov and one of them has been empty for the past month.”
In contrast, analysts say Assad’s army boasts 330,000 soldiers and highly advanced weaponry, most of it bought from Russia.
While many of its recent weapons purchases — like air defense technology and anti-ship missiles — can’t be used against rebels, they point to a highly sophisticated force.
Joseph Holliday, an analyst with the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War who has studied Syria’s rebels, said they will not be able to challenge the army without substantial help, though they can wage an effective insurgency.
“There is no possibility in the foreseeable future that they’ll be able to pose a real challenge to or defeat the regime’s forces in a pitched battle,” he said. “They can continue to survive. They can attack areas where the regime is not in full control, and they can sap regime forces and get them to play the proverbial whack-a-mole that U.S. forces had to deal with in Iraq.”
That means the violence could last. Already the revolt has become one of the bloodiest of the Arab Spring, with the U.N. saying more than 8,000 people have been killed.
“Because of the strength of the regime and because of the rebels’ survivability and resilience, you’re looking at a protracted conflict,” he said.
Rebels in Syria’s south typify this insurgent strategy, where small bands of fighters attack regime targets then disappear into nearby farmland. This week, they bombed a bridge on a key highway to prevent the army from bringing in more tanks.
Activist Raed al-Suleiman said his village of Nawa in Daraa province has fewer than 100 rebels, whom local residents support.
“They give them money, food or clothing,” he said. “Their ammunition is all booty from the regime since no aid is coming from Jordan.”
Ahmad Kassem, an FSA coordinator outside Syria, said rebels had recently looted weapons caches in Daraa and outside of Damascus, getting thousands of machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft guns and missiles.
“The seized weapons will give a qualitative jump to our military operations,” he said. “It’s not enough, but sufficient in the meantime to inflict harm on Bashar’s oppressive army.”
The Syrian government blames the uprising terrorist groups acting out a foreign conspiracy and cites insurgent attacks to press its argument. It has vowed to keep fighting.
It bars most media organizations for working in the country, and rebel and activists claims could not be independently confirmed.
Still, many rebels say the arms shortage restricts their abilities.
Rebel coordinator Mohammed Qaddah in Jordan said some 2,000 fighters in the countryside around Damascus have less than one rifle per man, forcing them to take turns or resort to simpler means.
“We use Molotov cocktails and homemade grenades in roadside ambushes because we’re desperate,” he said. “But we have no means to arm all our eager men.”