GORENTAS, Turkey (AP) — Syrian rebels are regrouping despite some bitter defeats at the hands of President Bashar Assad's regime, and a top priority is finding weapons and ammunition to boost their firepower, a man who identified himself as a low-ranking rebel commander told The Associated Press.
Ahmad Mihbzt, who said he was a sergeant who defected from the Syrian army, spoke in Gorentas, a Turkish village just a few kilometers (miles) from the Syrian border. The 25-year-old is one of hundreds, possibly thousands, of rebels who have fled to Turkey, where many hope to turn the tide of the fight back in their favor.
"We are regrouping," Mihbzt insisted Sunday. "We are working on finding weapons."
In recent weeks, as the uprising against Assad wrapped up its first year, Syrian government forces retook some key rebel-held areas in the country.
On March 1, after nearly four weeks of relentless shelling that killed hundreds of people, the government reclaimed the Baba Amr neighborhood in the city of Homs. On Tuesday, government forces retook the town of Idlib after a bloody, three-day operation close to the border with Turkey.
Mihbzt was among some 200 rebels, including military defectors, fighting Syrian troops in the village of Cenudi, near Idlib. About a week ago, government forces routed the rebels after shelling the village from about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) away in an operation that used hundreds of soldiers, Mihbzt said.
Mihbzt and his 20 men left their weapons with other rebels who fled to nearby mountains and began a 25-kilometer (16-mile) walk toward the Turkish border while under fire from Syrian forces. He said the rebels withdrew in part to protect the civilian population from further harm.
Now he is in a refugee camp in Turkey that houses about 500 former members of the Syrian military. More than 15,000 refugees labeled as civilians are in other border camps. Mihbzt claimed thousands of those refugees also are members of the Free Syrian Army, a statement difficult to immediately verify.
The rebels' top priority is gathering more weapons and especially ammunition, Mihbzt said.
As part of their strategy, rebel fighters are targeting Syrian soldiers on patrol or sentries guarding various facilities to seize their weapons. The rebels also hope to capture arms depots belonging to the Syrian army, he said.
The soft-spoken Mihbzt didn't give many details, but an influx of weapons could possibly transform the conflict.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been discussing military aid, but the United States and others have not advocated arming the rebels, in part out of fear it would create an even more bloody and prolonged battle.
Syria has a complex web of allegiances in the region that extends to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, raising concern that violence could spread beyond its borders if other nations directly army the rebels or send in their own troops.
The regime says it is fighting foreign terrorists and armed gangs, not a genuine popular revolt. But the opposition says it was forced to take up arms after the government used tanks, snipers and machine guns to crush peaceful protesters inspired by the Arab spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
A major challenge facing the rebels is a dearth of cash with which to buy weapons and ammunition.
A well-connected Turkish smuggler who operates in the region says rebels have faced difficulty buying weapons on the black market in part because people close to the Syrian regime have offered higher prices. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears reprisals if he is named.
Interviews with more than a dozen FSA members in recent months indicate that the group's weapons tend to come from Iraq and Lebanon, as well as from army defectors who kept their weapons when they abandoned their posts.
Mihbzt said the rebels mostly had Kalashnikovs, some rocket-propelled grenade launchers and heavy machine guns. He said finding ammunition in good condition is a problem. But he insisted rebels would not give up their quest to overthrow the Assad regime.
"We don't accept the defeat," he said. "We will fight until our last drop of blood."