June 12, 2013
Eliot Higgins, a British arms blogger who writes under the online pseudonym Brown Moses, has emerged as one of the foremost authorities on the extensive flow of arms into Syria throughout the conflict. For over a year now, Higgins, who had no prior experience with Syria, has been studying the weaponry used by regime and opposition forces by monitoring close to 600 YouTube channels daily. Tracking the Syrian revolution’s armaments is a full-time job for Higgins, whose work has informed international media outlets and Syria experts alike.
He spoke with Michael Pizzi about where the opposition is getting its arms from and assesses how the rebels are managing to keep pace with the better-equipped Syrian Army. As he remarks about the opposition’s fleet of Soviet tanks, “they’ve got enough to make a difference,” an assessment that appears to be holding true across the underdog opposition’s range of weaponry.
Below, the three takeaway points from Higgins’ analysis of opposition armaments:
1. THE FSA IS ACQUIRING WEAPONS FROM A GLOBAL MAZE OF SOURCES FROM CROATIA TO CHINA
The Croatian arms purchased by Saudi Arabia and smuggled into the country from Jordan, with US backing first began to arrive towards the end of 2012. None of these weapons are used by the Syrian army, nor are they something that would be widely available on the black market. This means [that] if the ammo supply is cut off, the weapons will become useless as no other ammo will be easily available. Probably not a bad plan if Britain or France plan to start arming them.
All the early appearances of the Croatian weapons showed them in the hands of groups aligned with the FSA, so it appears they were the main groups to initially receive them, if not the only groups to receive them, but eventually they did start appearing in the hands of Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, and I’ve heard of armed groups trading and selling arms to each other, so it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s how they got them.
More recently they’ve been joined by Chinese FN-6 MANPADS [Man-portable air defense systems, shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles], first seen in Deir Ez Zor, and it’s unclear where these came from as Syria isn’t publicly known to own any, so they might have been part of a Chinese import before the conflict, or smuggled in during the conflict to the opposition. I’ve never seen them looted from government stockpiles, so that remains a mystery no one has been able to resolve.
2. WITH THE INCREASE IN REPORTS THAT THE SYRIAN ARMY IS REGULARLY EMPLOYING HEAVIER ARTILLERY, FROM SCUD MISSILES TO EXPLODING BARRELS, THE REBELS ARE DOING THEIR BEST TO KEEP PACE.
[The opposition has] a pretty wide range of heavy weaponry. There are now quite a few groups who have access to different types of tanks, artillery, and howitzers, captured from various government bases. I’ve collected a lot of the tank videos in this playlist, and it’s a mix of T-55, T-62, and T-72 tanks [of Soviet origin] that are commonly used by the military. They don’t have huge numbers of them, but they’ve got enough to make a difference. The same goes for artillery, they’ve got a few pieces here and there, but they make a big difference against checkpoints and other fixed positions.
Then there’s rocket artillery, [such as] the RAK-12. The most common type is the Type-63 multiple rocket launcher, which I’ve collected video of here. Again, they are commonly used by the Syrian army.
More recently [there are] examples of 122mm rockets being used, usually fired from BM-21 Grads (and frequently referred to as Grad rockets), but in Syria the opposition are firing them from “Do-It-Yourself” (DIY) launchers, which I’ve been collecting here.
Beyond that there’s a mix of DIY weapons, IEDs, DIY rockets, and DIY mortars [comprising] the most popular heavier weapons, with a lot of time and energy being put into producing the DIY rockets and mortars.
With regards to surface-to-air missiles there’s a variety of SA series Soviet MANPADS, mainly the earlier SA-7, which isn’t really that great, and the SA-16, and they are fairly widespread, with Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist groups already having their share of them. It doesn’t seem to be appearing in the same sort of numbers that were seen in Libya however, probably dozens filmed compared to hundreds, if not thousands, in Libya.
3. OPPOSITION FIGHTERS ARE MAKING EFFECTIVE USE OF CHEAP OR LOOTED WEAPONRY TO UNDERCUT THE REGIME’S SUPERIOR MILITARY
[In terms of shoulder-mounted weaponry] the most common type is the RPG-7, with a smattering of RPG-18s, RPG-26s, RPG-27s, and RPG-29s, all of which are Soviet in origin, and in service with the Syrian army, so likely looted from their ammo dumps by the opposition. The RPG-29s are particularly effective against even the best armor the Syrian military has.
Then there are the wire-guided missiles, the AT-3, AT-4, AT-5 and AT-13, which are again all Soviet and in service with the Syrian army. With a trained operator they are highly effective against armor, particularly armor in stationary defensive positions, which makes them pretty much sitting ducks against these sorts of weapons. They’ve been used by the opposition in increasing numbers over the last nine months, in line with increasing captures of ammo dumps and bases.
[Then there are] recoilless guns/rifles, the most common types are the SPG-9 and B-10, which are again very effective against armour, and are of Soviet origin and used by the Syrian army.
The [aforementioned Croatian arms] aren’t the most advanced weapons, but they are effective against the armor used by the Syrian army. [They] made a massive difference in the Daraa region, where the opposition were very poorly equipped compared to [rebel] forces in the north of the country, mostly relying on RPG-7s for their anti-armor capabilities.