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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's turn now Israel's neighbor, where civil war is raging. After a string of defeats, Syria's rebel fighters manage to claim a rare victory last month. They gained control of a large part of the southern city of Dera'a, where the revolt against the Assad regime began more than two years ago. Now that city is now a major battle front. Rebels say their gains are in jeopardy unless they get more weapons pledged by their U.S. and Arab backers.

NPR's Deborah Amos has the latest.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The rebel commander agrees to meet us at a rehab hospital in Jordan. The cost of the fight in southern Syria shows on the grim faces of rebels in wheel chairs and on crutches, some bedridden for life. The commander, defected Army Colonel Mohammed al-Dehni, says rebels now have an organized military council in Dera'a, which may explain the first rebel victory in months.

COLONEL MOHAMMED AL-DEHNI: (Through Translator) It's an incremental liberation effort. One checkpoint is liberated, then another and then another.

AMOS: When rebels recaptured what's left of an 8th century mosque in Dera'a - he snapped a cell phone picture. In March, 2011, the mosque was the gathering point for the first political protests against the Assad regime.

That's the Omari Mosque? That's where the revolution began?

AL-DEHNI: Mm-hmm. (Through Translator) 18 tank shells destroyed it.

AMOS: Now in Jordan, he wants heavy weapons to counter the regime's tanks. He says Saudi Arabia has been covertly arming rebels for months. But, now, he says, Americans have the final say on who gets the weapons here, insisting the arms go only to moderate rebel groups, as opposed to Islamist brigades.

AL-DEHNI: (Through Translator) They simply don't trust us at the moment, and the problem is that we are now frustrated by the fact that we have no guaranteed source of ammunition.

AMOS: Many commanders say they are frustrated too, with the heavy vetting by U.S. intelligence agents, and a Saudi arms pipeline that is undependable. The military aid promised by President Obama in June has not arrived at all, they say.

AHMED NE'MEH: (Through Translator) We're very disappointed in what's happening.

AMOS: That's Ahmed Ne'meh, a former air force officer, who now heads a rebel military council. He and other commanders say the U.S. and its allies have been assisting with training and intelligence sharing. Some non-lethal aid arrived two months ago.

NE'MEH: (Through Translator) Yes we did receive logistical support in terms of bullet proof vests, night vision goggles and security communication devices.

AMOS: But to even to get non-lethal gear, rebel fighters have to prove they are not Islamist - every battle must be documented for U.S. agents at an operations room in Jordan, says Ne'meh.

NE'MEH: (Through Translator) Yes, we have been having people state on video that they've been receiving this logistical support.

AMOS: But he says it's not enough to change the dynamics against Syria's national army in Dera'a, especially with the recent reinforcements from Iran and the Shiite Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. Rebels have pleaded with the U.S. and international backers to open up the arms pipeline thru Jordan, and send anti-tank - and anti-aircraft weapons soon.

NE'MEH: (Through Translator) We do have communications with the Americans. They are our friends and allies. We just hope to get something proper from them. Why the delay?

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AMOS: In June, rebels blew up two high rise buildings that flanked an army post in Dera'a, and claimed that the whole city was close to falling. Activists posted a video of the fight. But now the gains are in doubt, says Dehni, after his failed mission to get re-supplied in Jordan.

AL-DEHNI: (Through Translator) Liberate Dera'a? Look, we are not receiving the weapons we need or the ammunition that we need.

AMOS: With the rebels losing ground across Syria, in Qusair, on the border with Lebanon, and in the central city of Homs, the outcome in southern Syria is crucial.

Syria's political opposition leader has rejected negotiations sponsored by the U.S. and Russia until the rebels are stronger on the ground. We are waiting to see if the American promise of arms is more than just words, says Dehni.

AL-DEHNI: (Through Translator) It is also our bad luck that this has come after Afghanistan and after Iraq, and therefore, now American society is very careful, maybe too careful.

AMOS: Too careful for the rebels of Dera'a, he says, who fear that the Americans will let them down.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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