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Aug 6, 2013 | 10:06 GMT

3 mins read

Syrian Civil War Update: Rebels Rely on Regime Weapons

Syrian Civil War Update: Rebels Rely on Regime Weapons
(SAM SKAINE/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Syrian civil war progresses, Syria's rebels continue to rely disproportionately on weapons acquired from regime forces. Opposition fighters also use weapons imported from foreign patrons and acquire arms on the black market. But locally made arms often are crudely assembled and unreliable, and the weapons shipments from abroad tend to be insufficient and too infrequent to sustain a rebellion. Thus, the vast majority of the rebels' arsenals, especially heavy weapons, have been seized from regime stockpiles.

Seizing regime arms depots typically yields large quantities of weapons, and confiscated armaments have been instrumental in fueling the rebellion. Indeed, several rebel units, including Liwa al-Islam, the al-Tawhid Brigade, the Mughaweer Battalion and Jabhat al-Nusra, fought together the week of July 28 to capture three such caches near the town of Yabroud in northern Rif Dimashq governorate. Videos aired Aug. 3 show the rebels capturing hundreds of anti-tank guided missiles, including French MILANs and Russian 9K111 Fagots, 9M113 Konkurs and 9M133 Kornets. The Kornet is a particularly effective weapon, capable of penetrating any armored vehicle in the Syrian regime's inventory, including T-72 main battle tanks equipped with explosive reactive armor.

The rebels have threatened to use the missiles to close off the M5 highway between Damascus and Homs. Given the significant presence of regime forces in northern Rif Dimashq and the high priority they place on keeping the route open, the rebels probably will not be able to follow through with their threats. However, the fact remains that large numbers of advanced anti-tank guided missiles represent a significant threat to regime forces in the area. (Notably, the rebels also have been receiving anti-tank guided missiles from abroad.)

Western countries reportedly are considering transferring 9K33 Osa surface-to-air missile systems to the rebels, but so far there is no proof that they have done so. On July 30, Liwa al-Islam posted a video that depicted one of these batteries shooting down a regime helicopter in eastern Ghouta region, close to Damascus. Given that the rebels are inundated by regime offensives, they would be hard-pressed to bring in foreign equipment to the area. Thus, the batteries probably were acquired from the regime, not from the West. Indeed, in December 2012, Liwa al-Islam posted videos depicting the seizure of at least two 9K33 systems in eastern Ghouta. Though it is unclear whether the group could operate the vehicles at the time, generally the fact that so many rebel groups absorb former Syrian soldiers means that they tend to be relatively familiar with seized equipment.

There is another reason to believe more weapons are seized than donated: Foreign governments, particularly Western ones, are concerned about the growing jihadist presence in Syria and are loath to arm them. The weapons that are transferred often arrive in isolated shipments. These shipments augment rebel arsenals temporarily but rarely consist of advanced weaponry.

Some weapons delivered prove to be defective, especially those that are particularly concerning to Western powers. For example, Chinese FN-6 man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS, allegedly shipped from Qatar turned out to be unreliable. Rebels have sought to compensate by constructing their own weapons, but these often prove just as dangerous to the user as to the troops being targeted.

Thus, captured regime equipment remains the primary means by which rebels arm themselves. The trend began with defectors from the army carrying standard-issue weapons with them as they joined the rebel ranks. But it has since evolved; rebels missions are now planned deliberately to overtake regime arms depots. Because foreign countries are unlikely to send significantly more weapons anytime soon, the rebels will continue to emphasize seizing arms from the regime to offset their comparative disadvantage in firepower.

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