On one side of the Syrian rebellion: guns that use digital camera zooms for their scopes; soldered lengths of pipe transformed into explosive shells; Howitzers rescued from the scrap heap. On the other side: what appear to be bombs that ignite the air around them; seeming cluster munitions; and Iranian weapons flown in through the airspace of the supposedly pro-U.S. government of Iraq.
The Syrian resistance supposedly has a weapons pipeline flowing through Turkey. But that’s not preventing rebels from homebrewing their own weapons. While it may have taken the rebellion some time to move beyond manufacturing homemade bombs, its machinists weld machine guns onto pickup trucks and create crude flamethrowers. A host of social media, from YouTube videos to Facebook pages, disseminate basic weapons tutorials to green rebel recruits.
But C.J. Chivers of The New York Times provides a new look into the rebels’ weapons foundries. These are weapons of pure necessity. Insurgents stripped out the disc brake of a motorcycle to stabilize a 14.5-millimeter machine gun so it doesn’t jostle on the back of a pickup truck. But the real innovation comes from a small mount on the gun for digital camera lens pointing down the barrel. The camera’s zoom function becomes a makeshift scope — especially in video mode. “The man firing the weapon [can] observe the path of the tracers relative to an aircraft or distant vehicle much more closely than he otherwise would,” Chivers reports.
That’s not all. The rebels turn metal piping into shells about the size of a 16-ounce soda can, filling them with explosives and firing them through a salvaged Howitzer with a 65-inch barrel. (See the results in the video above.) Chivers marvels that the shells have scored grooves running around their diameter, so that they’ll spiral in flight in a stable manner, suggesting “a more than rudimentary understanding of ballistics.” On the other hand, the weapon, nicknamed the Fat Man, has a paltry 2-kilometer range, and its manufacturers try to position themselves well away from it when they fire, suggesting that the barrel isn’t stable and could injure the amateur artilleryman firing it.
These are not concerns that dictator Bashar Assad’s forces have.
The Brown Moses blog is a clearinghouse of reports on the weaponry used in Syria’s bloody civil war. And it shows just how uneven the conflict is. A report from earlier this month suggests that Assad’s air force drops thermobaric bombs on Syrian villages — that is, bombs that light the air itself on fire, creating a massive shockwave. This post, using stills from an August YouTube video, seems to show a thermobaric detonation over one such village.
Similarly, Brown Moses collects evidence of cluster bombs used this summer by Assad. (See the video above.) While it’s hardly a surprise at this point that Assad would use weapons that cause a mass amount of civilian damage — and, in fairness, the U.S. military used cluster munitions in the early phases of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — it’s still noteworthy to document what look like PTAB-2.5m cluster bomblets showing up unexploded in Syrian rebel areas. The world is plagued by neglected cluster bombs that detonate years after conflicts end, maiming and killing innocents. (Although it should also be said that there’s evidence the Syrian rebels are conducting mass executions of captured Assad soldiers.)
Despite international sanctions on Assad, it doesn’t look like he’s running out of weapons. The Obama administration slapped a new round of penalties Wednesday on key parts of Assad’s deadly supply chain in Belarus and Iran. But the Iranians are hardly giving up on their Syrian proxy: New intelligence reports indicate they’re flying in weapons over Iraq, a charge that the Iraqis publicly deny. Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned Iraq that acquiescence to the Iranian aid to Assad will jeopardize its U.S. aid, a disturbing coda to the Iraq war.
It remains to be seen how the U.S. and its allies can stanch the flow of weapons to Assad. Even if they can, the Syrian rebel foundaries still appear overmatched.