In shift, Saudi Arabia is said to send arms to rebels in Syria

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WASHINGTON -- Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to anti-government fighters in Syria in a drive to break the bloody stalemate that has allowed President Bashar Assad to cling to power, U.S. and Western officials familiar with the purchases say.

The weapons began reaching rebels in December via shipments shuttled through Jordan, officials said, and have been a factor in the rebels' small tactical gains this winter against the army and militias loyal to Mr. 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 Mr. Assad's forces. The weapons' distribution has been principally to arm 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 terrorists' hands. But officials said the decision to send in more weapons is aimed at another Western fear 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 recognition among the rebels' Arab and Western backers that the opposition's success in pushing Mr. Assad's military from much of Syria's northern countryside by the middle of last year gave way to a slow, grinding campaign in which the opposition remains outgunned and human costs continue to climb.

Washington's role in the shipments, if any, is unclear. Officials in Europe and the United States, including those at the CIA, cited shipments' sensitivity and declined to comment publicly.

But one senior U.S. official described the shipments as "a maturing of the opposition's logistical pipeline." The official 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."

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