The raid, the first large-scale assault by the Free Syria Army on a military base since the start of the Syrian uprising, has given impetus to claims that the anti-regime insurgency is gaining momentum after 16 haphazard months.
Buoyed by defectors, scores of whom are thought to have aided the attack on the al-Ghanto air defense base near Homs on Sunday, opposition fighters seized large amounts of weapons and ammunition – a rare haul during many months of battles that has seen them severely outgunned by loyalist forces.
The area targeted by helicopters near the Turkish border is home to several corridors where evidence of coordinated arms-smuggling into Syria has recently been confirmed. A witness to one transfer said scores of AK-47s and ammunition had been smuggled across the border and paid for in cash in the days following the Houla massacre in late May, in which at least 100 died.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have suggested since February that they supported arming opposition groups. However, evidence of state-backed weapons runs has been difficult to find in northern Syria, where Free Syria Army units are mainly using small-arms supplied by defectors, or bought from still-serving loyalist troops.
Weapons have at times also made it across the Lebanese borders, with one supply line through the Bekaa valley delivering guns and rockets from civil war era arms bazaars and another through the far north providing more modern weaponry, some of which is believed to have come from Libya.
One of the leading opposition groups, the Syrian National Council (SNC), on Monday announced it had picked a new leader, a secular Kurd, Abdulbaset Sayda, who has lived in exile for the past 17 years. Sayda immediately urged new defections, while reaching out to minority communities of Kurds, Christians, Alawaites and Druze, many of whom have feared life after the Assad regime which has ruled the country for more than 40 years.
The SNC has been crippled by infighting since its inception more than a year ago and has had a severely strained relationship with the Free Syria Army, which has been beset by its own leadership problems.
The FSA has largely been devoid of central command and control and has operated as a series of militia franchises who each call their own shots. However, an attack on parts of the capital over the weekend appeared to show heightened co-ordination. The Syrian government claims some other FSA attacks, especially near Homs, have shown a new sense of rigor and discipline.
For now, the U.N. plan championed by special envoy Kofi Annan remains the centerpiece of international efforts to stop Syria from unraveling across sectarian lines. The plan has called, among other things, for both sides to agree to a ceasefire and for regime forces to pull heavy weapons back from urban centers. None of its elements have been implemented.
"The coming weeks must see an intensified and urgent international effort to stop the violence and restore hope to Syria," said Hague. "Political transition must be based on democratic principles and reflect the needs of all Syria's minority communities, including the Kurds, Christians and Alawites."
Intellpuke: You can read this article by Guardian Chief Political Correspondent Nicholas Watt and Middle East Correspondent Martin Chulov, reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, in context here: www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jun/11/al-qaida-syria-william-hague