Syrian rebels, frustrated by the West's reluctance to provide arms, have found a supplier in an unlikely source: Sudan, a country that has been under international arms embargoes and maintains close ties with a stalwart backer of the Syrian government, Iran.
In deals that have not been publicly acknowledged, Western officials and Syrian rebels say, Sudan's government sold Sudanese- and Chinese-made arms to Qatar, which arranged delivery through Turkey to the rebels.
The shipments included anti-aircraft missiles and newly manufactured small-arms cartridges, which were seen on the battlefield in Syria -- all of which have helped the rebels combat the Syrian government's better-armed forces and loyalist militias.
Emerging evidence that Sudan has fed the secretive arms pipeline to rebels adds to a growing body of knowledge about where the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad is getting its military equipment, often paid for by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or other sympathetic donors.
While it is unclear how pivotal the weapons have been in the nearly 3-year-old civil war, they have helped sustain the opposition against government forces emboldened by aid from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
Sudan's involvement adds yet another complication to a civil war that has long defied a diplomatic resolution. The battle has evolved into a proxy fight for regional influence between global powers, regional players and religious sects. In Sudan's case, it has a connection with the majority Sunni rebels, and a potentially lucrative financial stake in prosecuting the war.
But Sudan's decision to provide arms to the rebels -- bucking its own international supporters and helping to cement its reputation for fueling conflict -- reflects a politically risky balancing act.
Sudan maintains close economic and diplomatic ties to Iran and China. Both nations have provided military and technical assistance to Sudan's state-run arms industry and might see sales of its weapons by Sudan to help Syrian rebels as an unwanted outcome of their collaboration with Khartoum, or even as a betrayal.
In interviews, Sudanese officials denied helping arm either side in the Syrian war. "Sudan has not sent weapons to Syria," said Imad Sid Ahmad, press secretary for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
Al-Sawarmi Khalid Saad, spokesman for the Sudanese armed forces, added that the allegations defied common sense, except perhaps as a smear. "We have no interest in supporting groups in Syria, especially if the outcome of the fighting is not clear," Mr. Saad said. "These allegations are meant to harm our relations with countries Sudan has good relations with."
A Qatari official said he had no information about a role by his country in procuring or moving military equipment from Sudan.
Sudan has a history of providing weapons to armed groups, while publicly denying its hand in such transfers. Its arms or ammunition have turned up in South Sudan, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Chad, Kenya, Guinea, Mali and Uganda, said Jonah Leff, a Sudan analyst for the Small Arms Survey, a research project. It has provided weapons to Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army; rebels in Libya; and the janjaweed, the pro-government militias accused of a campaign of atrocities in Darfur.
"Sudan has positioned itself to be a major global arms supplier whose wares have reached several conflict zones, including the Syrian rebels," said one U.S. official familiar with the shipments to Turkey.
Western analysts and officials said Sudan's clandestine participation in arming rebels in Syria suggests inherent tensions in Mr. Bashir's foreign policy, which broadly supports Sunni Islamist movements while maintaining a valued relationship with the Shia theocracy in Iran. Other officials suggested that a simple motive was at work -- money. Sudan is struggling with a severe economic crisis.
"Qatar has been paying a pretty penny for weapons, with few questions asked," said one U.S. official familiar with the transfers. "Once word gets out that other countries have opened their depots and have been well paid, that can be an incentive."
Two U.S. officials said the shipments have been delivered by Ukrainian-flagged aircraft.world