Syrian rebels are massively outgunned by Bashar al-Assad's regime. But as Assad's army bears down on Aleppo, it may find the armed opposition is more than ready.
- By Eliot HigginsEliot Higgins writes for the Brown Moses Blog, which covers the military hardware and tactics used in the Arab revolts. Follow him on Twitter: @Brown_Moses.
“We are using bullets that cost $3,” lamented a Syrian rebel commander, “and they are coming with bombs that cost thousands.”
That may be so, but Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters have used those $3 bullets to bring President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to the brink of collapse. Over the past week, they have seized control of several districts in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and economic hub. Now, as Assad musters his forces to retake the city, both sides are bracing for what could be a pivotal battle in the 16-month revolt.
How did Syria’s rebels get so far with so little? As their strength has grown, they have used heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft cannons, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and they have even captured tanks to inflict damage on the Syrian military. As a largely improvised guerrilla force, they have also cobbled together some strange do-it-yourself (DIY) weapons systems, designed to hurl whatever explosives are on hand back at their enemies.
These weapons reflect the FSA’s need for rapid movement, and they have at times proved effective in urban combat environments. Whether they will be enough for the rebels to repel the Syrian military in the battle of Aleppo, however, remains to be seen. Here is just some of the military hardware that Syria’s opposition fighters are using against Assad.
When the FSA does use vehicles, it prefers to use trucks mounted with Soviet-era DShK heavy machine guns or ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft cannons. Both are used widely by the Syrian military for anti-aircraft and fire support roles. The 23 mm ZU-23-2 can fire both high-explosive rounds and armor-piercing rounds, which are capable of penetrating the armor of the Syrian military’s BMP infantry fighting vehicles. Although the smaller 12.7 mm round of the DShK — nicknamed the Dushka, or “sweetie” in Russian — is little threat to armored vehicles, it does pose a threat to the helicopters used by the Syrian air force.
Here we see a video that purports to show a DShK firing at a helicopter in the northern town of Azaz. How effective DShK fire is against aircraft at that range is questionable, especially without the detachable anti-aircraft sight that many of the DShKs in Syria appear to be missing. Nonetheless, the FSA boasts of having brought down helicopters using DShK fire, as these men from Azaz claim. This video claims to show a helicopter downed by rebels in Syria.
In his June report from the northern town of Kafer Zaita, journalist Austin Tice described how speedy truck-mounted weapons could gain an advantage over slower-moving tanks. In this video, reportedly filmed in Azaz, a truck mounted ZU-23-2 fires at a target and then speeds off to avoid retaliation.
These weapons are also useful for harassing the Syrian regime’s air power, which the regime has seemingly relied on more frequently in recent days. In one battle, Tice described how a rebel commander attempted to draw helicopters away from a rebel force by engaging it with a DShK. “One helicopter gave chase, pursuing the black truck into the open countryside and expending significant machine-gun fire and at least three rockets,” he wrote. “The truck traveled about six miles to the nearby town of Khan Sheikhoun, arriving unscathed before hiding in a garage.”
The FSA has captured tanks and BMP infantry fighting vehicles from defeated or defected Syrian military forces. This video, for example, claims to show the rebels in command of seven vehicles captured during fighting in the western city of Talbiseh. While earlier reports have claimed that armored vehicles such as these were used in operations by the FSA — seemingly more acts of opportunity than part of planned assaults — their use in combat has been sparing.
Video evidence has emerged in the last few weeks that the FSA is using Russian T-series main battle tanks. The Syrian army is estimated to have around 5,000 T-55, T-62, and T-72 tanks, which generally employ a variety of high-explosive, fragmentation, and armor-piercing rounds.
Tanks can support infantry by destroying fortified positions, but in the rare cases in which the FSA has used them, it seems they were used for surprise attacks on military checkpoints and bases. In this video reportedly from the city of Rastan, an urban center close to Talbiseh and the city of Homs, one of the brigades belonging to the al-Farouq Battalion shows off three captured T-62 tanks. But the brigade is merely using the tanks here for an impromptu military parade: Why are we not seeing these weapons used more frequently in combat?
The answer is simple: Rebel armor is a high-priority target for Assad’s air and ground forces. Without the ability to defend from air attacks, tanks become sitting ducks for Assad’s helicopters, and they are unable to escape Assad’s ground forces as easily as infantry or truck-mounted weapons. This video shows a very rare example of a T-62 tank, which rebels say they captured during an attack on a house occupied by pro-Assad militiamen, being used to attack Assad’s forces.
But a second video, which appears to show the same T-62, shows the risks inherent in using tanks: Shortly after it fires on an enemy target (near the 6:00 mark), it appears to be destroyed by return fire, killing the crew members who aren’t lucky enough to leap out at the right moment.
Recent months have also seen the Syrian rebels add another tool to their arsenal: IEDs. The above video claims to show rebels using a roadside bomb to attack a tank on July 21 in the southern town of Tafas.
Like the guerrillas who fought against the U.S. military in Iraq before them, Syria’s rebels have discovered the lethal potential of these weapons. IEDs have allowed the FSA to limit the Syrian army’s ground operations, which has been reflected in the increased reports of helicopters being used by the Syrian armed forces. “The bomb [IEDs] is not only essential; it is a main part of our success,” one rebel commander told New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers recently.
Soldiers being transported in trucks are extremely vulnerable to IED attacks, which may explain why there’s frequently footage of tanks operating without infantry in narrow streets. The above video claims to show an attack on two trucks full of pro-Assad militiamen known as shabiha in the western city of Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon.
Lack of infantry support, however, merely causes another problem for the Syrian military — it leaves the tanks vulnerable to RPG attacks. This footage from Aleppo purports to show FSA fighters exploiting that lack of infantry support to disable a T-72 tank with an RPG.
The FSA has had access to RPGs since the beginning of the armed uprising, making it the rebels’ dominant anti-tank weapon. The occasional M72 LAW and AT-3 missile — anti-tank weapons developed in the 1960s by the United States and Russia, respectively — also make an appearance.
DO-IT-YOURSELF WEAPON SYSTEMS
When all else fails, Syrian rebels are manufacturing their own weapons to combat Assad’s military. These DIY weapons have been less of a feature in Syria than in the Libyan civil war, where rocket pods welded to the back of trucks appeared to be everywhere you looked. But they’re still present, ranging from the incredibly basic — such as a giant slingshot used to launch explosives-filled bottles — to the more complex. In the above video (at the 2:40 mark), Syrian rebels appear to commandeer a fuel truck to fashion a homemade flamethrower, which they use to set alight a building.
Some of these weapons systems even have their own workshops dedicated to producing ammunition for them. This video shows what appears to be one of the more elaborate examples — a homemade multibarrel rocket-launcher system. Here rebels make rockets from the remains of RPGs and fill them with homemade explosives.
The upcoming battle between the Syrian army and the FSA in Aleppo will be a test for both sides. The FSA has had plenty of time to prepare IEDs and ambushes for Assad’s forces, and the lack of infantry support for Syrian armor could result in a massive number of tank losses. We may also start to see some of the armored vehicles captured by the FSA in earlier fighting come into play.
For the FSA, it might not be a matter of winning in Aleppo, but of doing the most damage before retreating, as it has done in the past. But if the Syrian army continues to fight as it has been, it’s likely to suffer heavy losses before retaking the city.