How to Build an Army in Your Basement
From homemade rockets to car bombs, take a look at the weapons that Syria’s rebels are using to defeat Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian rebels mill around an open lot under a blue sky; off camera, a group chants "God is great." The spoils of a recent raid are laid out before them — a collection of T-55 tanks and the BMP series of infantry fighting vehicles. A number of rickety pick-up trucks idle in the background, perhaps the vehicles used in the attack. The rebels have wielded heavy machine guns to the truck beds — constructing an impromptu mechanized unit with which to wage war against President Bashar al-Assad’s army.
Syria’s 21-month uprising has devolved into a no-holds-barred civil war, where each side has reached for any tool that helps it kill its adversaries more efficiently. And they’re not just using the standard weapons of war: Both the rebels and Assad’s army have adopted a variety of do-it-yourself weapons to continue the fight. Some are the backbone of the Syrian insurgency, while others are as dangerous to the operator as to their target.
Truck-mounted weapons are one of the mainstays of this conflict, with rebels employing DShK heavy machine guns, KPV heavy machines guns and ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft cannons for this purpose. The DShK and KPV heavy machine guns are usually found mounted on the BMP vehicles and BDRM-2 armored cars, both widely used by the Syrian government forces. In many cases, they have been taken from those vehicles once they’ve been disabled or destroyed.
The ZU-23-2 is a more powerful weapon, capable of firing large, 23mm shells over a greater distance. It has proved itself as a deadly anti-air weapon: An October report from the Institute for the Study of War estimated that it has been responsible for 90 percent of the aircraft brought down in Syria.
Rocket-based weapons have recently appeared in the rebels’ arsenal. The most common is the Type 63 multiple rocket launcher, a Chinese-made weapon that fires 107mm rockets with a range of up to 5 miles, making it one of the longest-range weapon available to the insurgents.
Until the end of September, these weapons were almost completely absent from the videos released by Syria’s rebels recording their operations. But over the past six weeks, that has changed dramatically: Videos purportedly filmed in the governorates of Hama, Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia have all showed the insurgents wielding these weapons.
Other, more unusual instances of truck-mounted rocket launchers include this example of a rocket pod, normally used by aircraft, firing S-5 rockets. These rockets, while currently a rare sight in videos from Syria, were one of the favorite weapons of Libya’s rebels.
VBIEDs (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device), otherwise known as car or truck bombs, are one of the most controversial weapons in the rebels’ arsenal. The New York Times reported in September that an unwitting prisoner was used to drive a truck loaded with explosives toward a checkpoint near Idlib, believing it was part of a prisoner exchange.
This weapon is devastatingly simple. As the above video shows, insurgents simply fill vehicles with explosives, in this example including unexploded bombs, and drive them close to targets before detonating. In another case, a suicide car bomber killed at least 50 Syrian security men by exploding himself in the town of Sahl al-Ghab.
Both IEDs and VBIEDs were the scourge of the U.S. military in Iraq, and it may not be a coincidence that these weapons have now shown up in Syria. Some of the groups using these tactics supported the insurgency in Iraq: Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda-affiliated group that has claimed responsibility for a large number of these attacks, is perhaps the most prominent example.
IMPROVISED EXPLOSIVE DEVICES (IEDs)
One of the most effective DIY weapons used by the Syrian opposition is the IED, which has allowed the Syrian opposition to take on armored vehicles and effectively turn certain areas into no-go zones for troops in unarmored vehicles. As the use of IEDs increasingly limits troop movements, New York Times journalist C.J. Chivers wrote that the situation meant "the Syrian army is finished."
IEDs come in different shapes and sizes: Gas cylinders filled with explosives can make a simple bomb, while metal tubes with a concave end can be manufactured into an armor-piercing projectile. They can also be detonated using a variety of methods: by wire, radio, or cell phone — all methods easily accessible to the opposition.
Syrian insurgents have also began to use a variety of DIY weapons, the most common being pipe bombs. An example of the simple manufacturing process is shown in the above video: A metal pipe, filled with explosives from sources such as unexploded bombs and artillery shells, is detonated using a simple fuse.
In an attempt to increase the range of these weapons, Syrian opposition fighters have also been using oversized slingshots to launch them over longer distances, but as this video — where a pipe bomb fails to clear the wall from which it’s launched behind — proves, that comes with its own risks.
The production of rifle grenades — a grenade that can be attached to, and launched from, the end of a rifle barrel — demonstrates Syrian rebels’ ability to produce more sophisticated weapons. The above video demonstrates the manufacturing process: Fuses are manufactured for the grenade, the rifle grenades are cut into shape on a metalworking lathe, and then the insurgent provides a demonstration of how to use the rifle grenade.
This video demonstrates one of the key advantages the rifle grenade has over a standard grenade or pipe bomb: a much longer range, a great advantage in an urban combat environment such as Aleppo.
Since their earlier sightings in June, DIY rockets appear to have become one of the main long-range weapons used by the insurgents. Their significance was reflected in this recent video showing Aleppo Military Council head Col. Abdul Jabbar Aqidi visiting a Syrian opposition rocket factory. Although not manufactured in quite the same volume, DIY mortars have also made an appearance. These weapons have been crucial to providing the Syrian opposition with both direct and indirect explosive firepower.
It’s difficult to be certain of how effective and accurate these weapons are. Some videos show occasional accidents (for example, here and here) posted online, demonstrating that these are not the most reliable weapons in the opposition arsenal.
CLUSTER BOMBLET WARHEADS
This unique video demonstrates the ingenuity of the Syrian opposition, as well as some of the risks they take to procure explosives. It begins with Syrian opposition members digging up unexploded PTAB 2.5m cluster bomblets — an extremely dangerous job, considering how unstable unexploded cluster bomblets can be. The rebels then remove the fuses and tail fins from the bomblets, and replace the fin with fittings that allows them to be screwed into a rocket. A newly manufactured fuse is then screwed into the warhead, completing the rocket.
What we are seeing here is not just cluster bomblets being repurposed as warheads, but a manufacturing process that creates both a specialized fitting and an entirely new fuse.
ONE-OFF DIY WEAPONS
There are also a number of weapons that appear to be one-offs — for example, the above air-powered Molotov cocktail launcher. Other examples included a prototype of a grenade launcher, a shotgun based pipe-bomb launcher (seen in action here), a DIY recoilless gun, and a multi-caliber pipe gun.
Some of these weapons are extremely unsafe — for example, take this shoulder-mounted mortar launcher. Toward the end of the video we see several examples of the weapon being fired, and the last of those examples show the mortar becoming stuck in the end of the barrel, causing the rebel to drop the weapon and run away before the detonation.
SYRIAN ARMY DIY WEAPONS
In late August, activists began posting videos online of what they described as "barrel bombs" — barrels filled with explosives and shrapnel that were dropped from helicopters. In one report, a Syrian military defector described building more than 100 of these bombs, which an analyst described as doing roughly the same damage as a 1,000-pound bomb.
In late October, a series of videos filmed inside a Syrian Air Force helicopter showed barrel bombs being dropped. Odd as it may seem for a professional army to use such weapons, Assad’s forces aren’t the first to resort to such tactics: There have been reports of them being used in both Croatia and Sudan. With a limited number of ground attack helicopters, barrel bombs may be Assad’s way to get maximum firepower out of his Mil Mi-8 helicopters, which are used primarily for transport.