6 min read  | Politics, Reports

With US weapons nowhere to be found, rebels grow increasingly desperate


July 16, 2013

July 16, 2013

By Michael Pizzi and Ahmed Kwider

AMMAN: With uncertain weapons-supply routes and unfulfilled promises of arms from the United States, Syrian rebels are literally strapping themselves with explosives in a plea for arms.

In a video uploaded to YouTube last week, fighters in the besieged central city of Homs wear suicide belts, which they say they plan to detonate if the regime’s army storms the rebel-held neighborhood of Khaldiya.

“We wouldn’t do this except out of lack of weapons,” says one of the men, strapped into a belt and standing beside a decimated concrete structure that used to be a building. “There is nothing for us, we have no tanks or planes.”

REBEL ENGINEERING: The electronic sniper is the invention of a 23-year-old electrical engineering dropout from Aleppo, who has since joined the Free Syrian Army’s ranks. The sniper enables the operator to monitor the movements of enemy fighters, or even other snipers, by displaying them over a small screen. The operator, therefore, can sit at a distance and surveil out of harm’s way. Video courtesy of MrAboRiyad

The video, filmed in the most bombarded city in Syria, captures the desperation felt by rebels all over Syria as the weapons supplies begin to run dry.

The opposition’s political leadership in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, says it will rectify the situation. Last Saturday, the Coalition elected Ahmed Jarba as its new president, who has pledged to use his contacts in Saudi Arabia to garner additional military aid from the kingdom.

Ahmed Jarba’s Shammar tribal roots extend into Saudi Arabia, and he has split his adult life between Damascus and Riyadh.

“This could be a possible source of power for resolving issues in Syria,” says Dr. Mohammad Zakwan Baaj, Secretary-General of the Syrian Free Men, a political opposition group inside Syria. He says that Jarba may be able to capitalize on his “good relations with the Kingdom” to secure much-needed armaments for the rebels.

In an op-ed piece for the independent news site Youkal published on July 7th, Lebanese journalist Faris Khashan, who is affiliated with the anti-Assad March 14th Alliance, wrote that scraping together armaments for the Free Army is nothing new for Jarba.

“For some time now, he has taken up the issue of arming the Syrian revolutionaries,” says Khashan. As president of the Coalition, “he will push Saudi Arabia to increase its financial and military aid to the revolution.”

“If the sponsor countries are generous and give [Jarba] money and weapons, he will be the Father Christmas of the Syrian revolution,” says an independent political observer in his 60s originally from Aleppo who now resides in Saudi Arabia.

American President Barack Obama’s announcement last month that the government would begin to arm the rebels was met with applause from the FSA, which has been struggling in recent months against the Russian-funded Syrian army.

“I think it is a good move, if it really is an honest move,” says Abdul Jabar Al-Akidi, head of the Free Syrian Army’s Aleppo Military Council. “It is what we have been asking for from the beginning.”

Citing what he called “preliminary steps from the Americans,” Free Army Chief of Staff Salim Idris told Al-Jazeera on June 20th that while nothing had yet arrived in Syria, the US weapons would soon be “securely in the hands of the fighters.”

Brig. General Idris urged the United States to “expedite the arrival of weapons and ammunition to our Syrian brothers.”

Nearly a month has since passed and little has materialized on the ground, activists say, although President Obama reportedly reiterated his intention to carry through with arming certain rebel groups in a telephone conversation with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah last Friday. Still, many are doubting that Obama will make good on his promises for Syria, where rebels have experienced setbacks in Homs, Aleppo, and Daraa in recent weeks.

As the global powers pulling the Coalition’s strings posture for influence, the FSA cobbles together an arsenal of weaponry it has confiscated or purchased from Syrian army soldiers and do-it-yourself inventions such as the electronic sniper.

Moa’az al-Ta’ani, a citizen journalist and member of the field office for the United Houran LCCs, the umbrella organization for the Local Coordinating Committees in Daraa province, says that these days, the FSA acquires weapons in two different ways.

“The [military] support is limited to private aid and those spoils seized by the FSA from liberated military barracks and checkpoints,” he says.

Eliot Brown, a British arms expert who blogs under the pseudonym “Brown Moses,” says that rebel brigades are employing weapons of Soviet, Chinese, and Croatian origin, most of which have been trafficked into Syria or looted during raids on Syrian army warehouses.

“These aren’t the most advanced weapons,” says Brown, “but they are effective against the armor used by the Syrian army.”

Some brigades have even managed to steal heavy artillery, such as tanks and howitzers, from government bases around Syria.

“[The opposition has] a pretty wide range of heavy weaponry,” Brown says, adding that “they don’t have huge numbers.”

Since stolen or donated weaponry is not enough, revolutionaries also make their own arms.

Several FSA brigades have uploaded YouTube videos of themselves using “do-it-yourself” launchers to fire Grads, Soviet-produced rockets that can hit targets up to 30 km away. Brown says that the rebels are investing a lot of time and effort in manufacturing their own mortars and rockets along with IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

 The Free Islamic Army, an Islamist militant group that fights with the FSA, purportedly operates hundreds of weapons-producing workshops in the Damascus suburbs alone, according to a recent Al-Jazeera report.

Among the most infamously destructive DIY rebel inventions is the “hell cannon,” which fires shells weighing up to 40 kilograms at a distance of more than 1,500 meters. The hell cannon can affect destruction on a target area of up to 200 square meters. Rebel sources cite its critical role in gaining control over a number of government checkpoints in Idlib, in the aftermath of the massacres in Banyas.

Ingenuity will only propel the rebels so far. Fahed Al-Masri, the FSA’s spokesman in Paris, says that the FSA urgently needs high-quality weapons, and they have specific requests.

“The weapons we require most of all are anti-aircraft and anti-shield weapons, so that we can stop the [Syrian] Air Force and stop the regime and Hezbollah from advancing.”

“These will be enough to change the equation,” he says.

If Jarba or Obama is able to deliver weapons, it would come at a critical moment for opposition fighters. When the Syrian army and its Hezbollah allies conquered Qusayr on June 8th, they effectively cut off FSA supply lines from Lebanon. Clashes in the south’s Daraa province threaten to block many of the FSA’s border crossings into Jordan.

At a June 22nd conference in Doha, the Friends of Syria, a political collective comprised of the US, Saudi Arabia, and nine other nations, announced that they would provide a shipment of weapons to the rebels. Afterwards, the SNC’s representative in Turkey, Khaled Khoja, alluded in an interview with Hurriyet Daily News to the rebels’ dwindling options with regards to sneaking these arms into Syria.

“As we cannot get arms from Lebanon, where Hezbollah forces are deployed, and Iraq, we expect to receive them either from the northern or the southern border,” Khoja said.

In an appearance last week on Al-Arabiya channel, FSA Chief of Staff Salim Idris said that the rebels had managed to shoot down 90 regime tanks in the past month – even without adequate weapons – but confirmed that the regime still controls crucial supply routes needed to distribute weapons to FSA brigades.

It is those brigades that pay the price for the paralysis in both the international community and the Syrian opposition leadership. Faris, 27, an FSA fighter in the Western suburbs of Damascus, spoke to a Syria Direct reporter from his mobile phone as it charged on an old car battery. The regime had cut the power and was beginning to encircle the area. When told of the US proposal to send in more arms to Syria, he expressed pessimism that assistance would reach fighters attempting to stave off the Syrian army.

“None of it matters anymore,” he said.

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