British officials are secretly equipping Syrian rebel groups with satellite phones in a bid to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
The supply of the latest generation of handsets is part of the Foreign Office’s mission to mould militias into a coalition capable of governing the country. The phones, used by the Ministry of Defence, are designed for rugged environments and are shock, dust and water resistant.
Whitehall sources also confirmed the Foreign Office is teaching negotiation and ‘stabilisation’ skills to opposition leaders, and advising on how to address the Syrian people and international audiences.
Smoke rises over the Salah al-Din neighbourhood in central Aleppo during clashes between Free Syrian Army fighters and Syrian Army soldiers yesterday
The mission is complicated by the expansion of the conflict to all Syria’s major cities – from Aleppo in the north, to Homs in the centre, and the capital Damascus in the south.
Heavy explosions shook Damascus yesterday as rebels attempted to renew their offensive there. Witnesses reported hearing helicopters and outbreaks of gunfire.
The violence could mean that Assad’s position is weakening after his recent victories, as armed opposition forces reorganise themselves.
The biggest group he faces is the Free Syrian Army, made up of soldiers and officers who defected from his regime.
According to military experts, the presence of Foreign Office officials and the provision of training and equipment to the opposition means that British Special Forces are likely to be operating in Syria.
Teams from the SAS and SBS are understood to be based in the neighbouring state of Jordan, slipping into Syria on missions.
Ex-British Army commander Richard Kemp – a former member of the Government’s Joint Intelligence Committee – said: ‘The UK Government cannot give practical support to the rebels without a presence inside Syria, and any Foreign Office officials seeking to liaise with the opposition leaders would require close protection from Special Forces.
‘The situation is hostile and changing rapidly. It is important Britain monitors the situation closely.’
Freedom? No, Syrians just want blood and revenge
ITV News Correspondent JOHN RAY reports from Aleppo
An Army is on the move, a huge and lumbering column. There are troops mounted on armoured vehicles and tanks slung on low-loading transporters. Slowly, they snake through the countryside.
The convoy stretches more than a mile along the highway that links Damascus in the south to Aleppo in the north.
It is moving along the spine of a broken-backed nation. And some see it as the last steel-gloved punch of a crumbling regime.
It is a tempting conclusion to draw. But it is premature. As the optimists have learnt time and again, Syria doesn’t do happy endings. Yet the soldiers are on their way to a battle that even President Bashar al-Assad admits will determine the fate of a nation.
Aleppo, an ancient city that has become modern Syria’s commercial heart, is not a place the regime can lose and still survive. The rebels have clung on in central districts and even parts of the old city.
I asked one rebel commander whether cold-blooded killing can be justified. By way of reply, he played me a video on his mobile phone.
It shows a scene of torture too gruesome to describe in detail, except to say that two men, bound and stripped, are decapitated.
When their screams had ended, the commander finally spoke.
‘This is the work of the Syrian army,’ he said. ‘They come and they slaughter our women and children. The worst we do to them is a bullet in the head.’
This weekend, both sides are gearing up for a violent showdown. The atmosphere is one of a storm about to break.
In the past 24 hours there have been deadly clashes as the rebels have tried to extend their area of control north from the Salah al-Din district.
For a time, they occupied the city’s television and radio stations, silencing the propaganda voice of the regime. But the government struck back, strafing rebel positions from a helicopter gunship and surrounding the buildings with snipers.
The rebels pulled back to the twisting lanes of their stronghold.
From Homs to Hama, both sides have learnt the ugly reality of urban warfare. The longer the rebels are dug in, the harder it is to get them out.
On the outskirts of Aleppo, I was taken to the local ‘nerve centre’ of the Free Syrian Army operation.
It turns out to be equipped with half a dozen short-range radios plugged into chargers, and the setting is incongruous. The rebels have taken over a luxurious Italianate mansion, with a swimming pool and a sweeping circular staircase down which fighters descend to greet us. Their prized weapons are a couple of heavy-calibre anti-aircraft machine guns, seized from the army. I last saw this kind of weapon charging down the road into Tripoli as Gaddafi’s rule disintegrated.
Today, the snipers are no problem. But as night falls, the thump and crash of shellfire begins. Worst is the second or two of silence as we wait for the explosion, wondering where the bombs will fall.
Daylight reveals homes bearing the scars of battle. A few houses have been flattened. Many more have holes punched in them by shells that have found their target. This was a district of 30,000 people. Now the streets are empty.
Last summer, near Jisr al-Shughour, the rebels I met amounted to a few terrified men.
By winter, in the mountains close to a town called Zabadani, volunteers loosely allied themselves with the Free Syrian Army. They had better weapons, the ubiquitous AK-47s. But again, when the tanks came, their choice was to stand and die, or to take flight and live to fight another day. Now there has been a step change and the rebels are better equipped than ever before.
From the border with Turkey to Aleppo, the rebels now have unbroken and largely unchallenged supply lines.
If Syria’s Arab enemies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, want to arm the rebels with serious weapons, they now have a route.
‘Over dinner I ask how long it will be before there is a final victory to celebrate. A few laugh and predict that before the Holy month is out Assad will be gone’
American intelligence personnel are said to operate north of the border. There’s talk of Free Syrian Army training camps there too.
But the picture is none too clear. ‘There were weapons coming across for a month or so,’ one well-informed source told me.
‘Then the Americans turned off the tap. They want to be careful. They need to know which groups are getting the guns.’
Over dinner I ask how long it will be before there is a final victory to celebrate. A few laugh and predict that before the Holy month is out Assad will be gone.
But the more thoughtful believe three to six months to be a more realistic estimate. Unless there are air strikes, they say.
Few I found talked of freedom or democracy. This has become a struggle simply for survival.
After so much bloodshed, it is powered by a thirst for revenge.
One activist tells me that it’s not just the president they want to kill. It’s every one of his fellow Alawites.
Assad’s elite units of loyal Alawites, the men he will need to conquer Aleppo, have wives and children and homes to defend as well. They too are fighting for their lives. They too will be ready to fight to the death.