Ali Darwish| Luay Ruhaibani|Nour al-Deen Ramadan
Over the course of the Syrian conflict, the factions of the Syrian opposition developed all sorts of weapons to fight against the forces of the Syrian regime, its Russian and Iranian allies, each having a large arsenal behind.
Former faction fighters, defector army officers, and military experts have all contributed to the home-grown weaponry of the armed Syrian opposition.
Some designers fashioned weapons using fertilizers, sugar, and explosive materials of unexploded bombs; others developed explosive devices and mines introducing new technologies to prototypes.
Amid lack of skill, experience, and training, as well as resources, raw materials and funding, necessity was the mother of improvisation, and also of death.
Here, Enab Baladi looks back at the phases the improvisation process went through over the past ten years, as it shifted from a necessity to answer for arms and ammunition shortages to the manufacture of tactical fight vehicles.
Enab Baladi also investigates the barriers that held the factions back from taking the leap to turn improvisation into a full-fledged military industry.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former fighter and designer of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) told Enab Baladi that homegrown weaponry has been creating alternatives and solutions to the arsenal and other materiel shortages. These improvised weapons were helpful in combating the Syrian regime forces covered by Russia and Iran, as well as the latter’s militias.
The designer parted ways with the opposition faction he joined and took up a job in the arms industry, particularly the manufacture of explosive devices.
“I am still an amateur but quite involved in the mines job. Whatever I develop, goes to the factions, for free.” All I do, I do as a service because I am not a member of any of the area’s factions, he added.
Defectors from the regime army were the young man’s first tutors.
Later, he sought the experts of the Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis faction to sharpen his skills. The faction was founded by former Palestinian Hamas Commander Salah Abu Salah in 2013.
In addition to developing camouflaged surveillance devices, used by factions on battlefronts, he has been designing mines and explosive devices for five years.
“We are using programming languages and smartphone applications in the manufacture of mines and explosive devices. Today, we can defy the Russian army, its ground, sea, and air forces. Conventional IEDs are out of fashion,” he told Enab Baladi.
The designer improved IEDs’ remote detonation systems, integrating Arduino kits and e-LUX sim cards into the devices he creates.
|The Arduino kit: A single-board microcontroller widely used to build environmental sensors measuring air temperature, humidity, air quality, pressure, and dust concentration.|
He told Enab Baladi that arms developers and designers should observe their own and other developers’ mistakes because he has so far lost 10 colleagues, while many more were impaired due to manufacturing errors, and lack of skills and expertise.
Loss made him even call his work the “death profession.”
How did it all start
In the early stages of combat, Syrian army defector officers from various branch specialties and military industry professionals from across the country brought their modest knowledge, gained through previous and humble state-led manufacturing experiments, under the same goal. They had to come up with a solution to the opposition factions’ dilemma—lacking supply lines for factory-made weapons.
Ibrahim al-Hamwi, a commander of Ahrar al-Sham, told Enab Baladi that, in early 2012, when the revolution gradually switched into militarization, there was no need for locally manufactured weapons. The rebels used small arms and light weapons to protect civilians during protests from assaults by the regime’s affiliated shabiha (thugs), security forces, and militants.
Commander al-Hamwi added that even the opposition factions back then were not what they are today. After 2012, the state of militarization differed recognizably and took an evident course as more officers and soldiers abandoned the ranks of the regime’s forces and joined the “revolution” to protect it.
Subsequently, clashes with the regime forces grew fiercer, and the opposition factions had to provide military supplies, in addition to the weapons they seized during active fighting or through raids on the regime’s military posts and checkpoints.
The factions sought to improvise their own arsenal, particularly as they were low on strategic weapons and munitions, including heavy military ranged weapons and missiles.
Commander al-Hamwi added that the opposition factions turned to improvisation because they were on unstable military aid programs and had to have alternatives to continue the fight against the Syrian regime should military funding be cut.
Lack of know-how and other barriers
Chief opposition factions identified ammunition shortages and other ordnance and materiel gaps. They were also intent on overcoming this disadvantageous vulnerability. Improvised artillery and other weapons were the solution; however, various hurdles disrupted the factions’ plans for a local military industry since 2012, including high costs of production and limited funding, as well as the slow rhythm of production against the escalating tempo of the factions’ military activities and the urgency of the battles with the regime forces.
Other challenges that curbed the progress of the local military industry and prevented factions from depending on improvised weapons as a chief source of supplies included scarcity of raw materials; ignorance of needed core materials; and lack of key machinery, such as CNC cutting machines and metal molding equipment, which give weapons their effective structure, enhance or mare their performance, particularly in areas of accuracy and precision.
In addition to financial and technical difficulties, the shortage of weapon manufacturing experts and trained designers and developers continued to haunt the opposition factions’ attempts at finding secondary channels to secure crucial military supplies.
Nawar Shaban, conflict expert at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that the know-how of manufacturing specific types of missiles, launchers, or fortifying armored vehicles varied from one faction to the other. Some factions lacked such human resources; others had them, including Jaysh al-Islam (al-Islam Army) and the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Even when the factions managed to summon military experts to their help, these experts managed to compensate for a limited range of necessary skills. An officer of the Faylaq al-Rahman (al-Rahman Legion), which operated in Damascus’ eastern Ghouta, told Enab Baladi that experts could only subject improvised weapons to tests or identify manufacturing errors.
The officer, engaged in arms manufacturing himself, added that there were not operative instructions on the molding process or information about proper percentages of ingredients. Accordingly, improvised weapons often had low accuracy ratings and failed to land shots close to where they aimed them.
Ranging from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), to missiles and rockets, to the filling of the soft-point bullet (SP), fired by Kalashnikov rifles and PKC machine gun, to combat vehicles, these home-grown ammunitions and weapons mark the phases of the armed opposition groups’ war against the regime which summoned to its help Iran with its weaponry and militias in 2011 and Russia which tested 231 weapons across Syrian territories since September 2015.
In September 2020, the Syrian National Army (SNA) paraded its second home-grown tactical combat vehicle, akin to Turkish vehicles in its design.
The vehicle was manufactured at the SNA facilities and by local experts.
Do-it-yourself weapons during battles
The local military industry is usually a demonstration of power, for the military capacity of a state is measured by its ability to produce arms and the size of its production, including barrages, aircraft, ordnance, long and short-range rockets.
Given the modest resources and the fluctuating circumstances, they were produced under, the opposition factions’ DIY weapons and munitions also played a significant role, particularly in safeguarding opposition posts. When brought to the battlefield and on fronts, some of these weapons were even essential to the extent that they influenced clashes’ outcomes.
Military Expert Colonel Hatim al-Rawi told Enab Baladi that some of the improvised conventional weapons were operative during battles. Short-ranged artillery and mines, for instance, helped the factions take over several of the regime’s military posts, and repel several attacks on Free Army locations.
Conflict expert Shaban told Enab Baladi that home-grown weaponry helped the opposition factions in areas of defense, more than in areas of attacks. The factions’ field fortifications were reinforced, especially “that the other side, [the regime’s forces], is highly fortified.”
He added that DIY weaponry could not be considered the chief reason for some of the victories landed by the opposition factions, nor their success to defend territorial control points. Improvised weapons played “a supporting role.”
He linked the local manufactures’ ability to improve their little industry to the factors of “time and stability.” These can provide factions with better circumstances to fortify their territories and increase their military productivity.
This actually happened in Eastern Ghouta and the neighborhoods of Eastern Aleppo, where opposition factions dominated for a long time. There, the factions had enough room to work on fortifications and the manufacture of weapons and ammunition.
Even though improvised weaponry served factions in defense tasks better than attack activities. The factions based one of their urban warfare tactics on DIY explosive devices and mines.
Engaging in active combat, jihadist military groups brought with them the expertise of their foreign fighters to the battleground, including IEDs manufacturing and booby-trapping skills. This knowledge affected the course of some battles and changed the results of others.
This new capacity remarkably boosted the military standing of the factions that owned it, particularly the HTS, former Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Nusra Front), Jund al-Aqsa, the Turkistan Islamic Party, and the Green Battalion, among others.
Vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) and booby-trapping functioned as an effective weapon and military tactic, most importantly during the battles that led to the factions’ control over the camps of al-Moustouma and al-Hamidiya, as well as the National Hospital in Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province in 2015. Bombings using explosive devices also aided the factions in breaking the siege imposed on the neighborhoods of Eastern Aleppo in 2016.
In September 2020, Enab Baladi spoke to the HTS spokesperson Taqi al-Din Omar online, who denied that the HTS gave up on explosive devices and booby-trapping in its military activities, calling them “an effective weapon.”
The HTS also profiled car bombs as an essential element of its arsenal in a video series called “Choose Your Weapon” published in December 2019. Car booms, the video said, are a weapon capable of keeping up with worldwide military-industrial progress, as they can “hit targets with high accuracy.”
The destructive capacity of a single bomb vehicle exceeds that of 15 air-to-air missiles, the video shows, demonstrating how these bombs are deployed and the type of explosives integrated into them, as well as the phases of booby-trapping and maneuvering methods.
Mines and explosive devices were not integrated into cars, tanks, and BMP vehicles only. Rather, the factions, particularly hardliners, also dug tunnels under the military posts and centers, as well as battalion stations and barracks of the regime forces. The tunnels were planted with explosives and detonated.
The factions adopted the tunnel-bomb tactic in November 2013 and detonated the Vehicle Management Base in Harasta, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus.
The factions used the same tactic in September 2012 to blow up the National Hospital in al-Qusayr city in Homs countryside, where the Syrian regime forces fortified, and the al-Fanar security checkpoint in Ariha in May 2015.
The factions also dug such tunnels under several buildings taken over by the regime forces in Aleppo, including the Sabaa Bahrat Square, the Carlton hotel in 2014, and the factories of the Ministry of Defense in 2015.
Failed anti-aircraft system project
Colonel al-Rawi told Enab Baladi that several military experts of the opposition factions opted for manufacturing anti-aircraft systems. Some of these experts did have the skills to build such weapons or develop conventional ones capable of battling aircraft. They have even worked on these weapons’ designs and programming systems.
However, almost nonexistent resources and the inability to bring in some of the necessary materials and equipment from abroad were major barriers to these experts’ manufacturing plans.
The opposition could not persuade donors to fund this project, which ended up stillborn.
The Syrian regime and allied Russian forces rely chiefly on the Air Force to advance into areas at the expense of the armed opposition groups, which arsenal contains none of the weapons needed to combat aerial attacks, amid the international community’s failure to establish an air exclusion zone (AEZ) in opposition-held areas.
The regimes and Russia’s air forces tend to hit strategic locations across the opposition’s territories with extensive air raids because the factions’ land fortifications make it difficult for them to advance in any other way.
Would DIY weapons ever become a wide-scale industry?
Today, there are arms manufacturing experts and an abundance of raw materials in northern Syria, including ARDEX, Aluminum powder, C4, and TNT.
However, several of the earliest factors persisted, jeopardizing the factions’ chances of expanding their local industrial attempts into a well-established sector. In addition to the higher figures the factions have to invest in the sector, military donations tightened, and field inputs underwent critical alterations.
Let alone the sector as a whole, several micro-level arms projects did not materialize because the factions refuse to coordinate with each other, or because only a few factions have access to expertise in the sector.
Commander al-Hamwi told Enab Baladi that at one point in the Syrian conflict, the manufacture of weapons was an essential factor in resolving some battles. The little local industry advanced significantly over time and many skills were gained. However, the barriers that hampered the industry, in the beginning, continued to disrupt its progress and turning it into a major source of armament.
The first years of the “armed revolution” pressed the armed opposition factions to improvise. Dependance on the weaponry they locally developed or manufactured took an upwards trajectory.
As the conflict lingered and the revolution-effected conditions changed, particularly after the Russian intervention, the industry grew less dependable and significant.
In the past few years, the nature of the battle changed dramatically; military support for the factions shrank; and operations rooms were established. All these factors marginalized the role of the local military industry. The factions increasingly turned away from improvised arms, for production is costly and slower than demand. The factions preferred funding though limited.
Speaking of Faylaq al-Rahman (al-Rahman Legion) as an example, the officer cited above told Enab Baladi that after it moved to northern Syria in 2018, the legion stopped manufacturing weapons, despite its former “successful” experiments which continued for years and influenced several of its battles.
Al-Rahman legion joined the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and started to receive materiel from the latter’s General Armament Department.
The officer said that weapons and essential ammunition manufactured by specialized companies are preferred over those manufactured locally because they are more accurate and easier to handle.
Conflict expert Shaban told Enab Baladi that when Turkey advanced as an international ally of the SNA, providing it with developed weapons, the SNA factions no longer needed to home-grow their arsenal, adding that some artillery, such as the Jahannam cannon, could still be developed but not to be used as alternatives to factory-developed heavy weaponry already in use.
Pertaining to human resources, unlike earlier stages of the improvisation process, many experts today own wide knowledge in areas of design and development, as well as mixing munitions and handling explosive materials.
Conflict expert Shaban said that should these experts receive fitting and integrated military training; they can turn into a core staff in the future. He recommended that the factions, particularly the SNA and the National Front of Liberation (NFL), focus their attention on these human resources, and ask Turkey to provide them with designated training programs.
The veto deadlock
Defector Colonel Abdulsalam Abdulrazaq
An SNA commander
In the beginning of the revolution, military factions were quite enthusiastic about manufacturing arms. With the little experience and resources available to them, they concentrated on improvising light weapons, modifying equipment and arms, developing the perception and the range of small arms, or the functions of artillery parts. These industrial efforts provided the factions with a destructive capacity that matched some of the weapons in the regime’s stockpile.
The revolution then went through core changes, and the factions were robbed of the choice to making military decision, including ones relating to military industries. Consequently, resources went lacking, will for manufacturing weapons diminished, military expertise were either dispensed with or subjected to various restrictions. What dominated the military scene later was de facto commands that showed little to no interest in a sector that could provide opposition factions with military supply sustainability.
However, the chief obstacle continued to be the ban on raw materials needed for military industries, which have been either impossible or difficult to obtain. This hampered the faction’ attempts to manufacture new equipment and limited them to improving or changing the specifications of some materiel. These manufacturing trends barely had any influence during battles.
The factions’ greatest manufacturing achievement for the past ten years, which made a difference on the battlefield, is probably the Jahannam cannon. The cannon was a crucial weapon through the different stages of the battle, from announcing the start of the fighting, to coverage and support of engaged fighters. The factions managed to develop this cannon’s accuracy only two years after it was first admitted into the battleground.
Some of the weapons improvised by opposition factions since 2011
Opposition factions developed several types of vehicles into machine guan launch platforms. Including PKSs, 12.5, 14.5, and 23 mm machine guns mounted rear trunks.
The factions armored these vehicles to protect the gunman, driver, and other vulnerable spots.
However, weaponizing and armoring vehicles took a whole different level as the factions managed to manufacture their own armored fighting vehicles (AFVs).
Z405 armored vehicle
- Manufactured by the Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki and first displayed in December 2018.
- Designed after the Turkish Cobra armored vehicle, manufactured by OTOKAR.
Backed by the armed opposition groups, Turkish forces used Cobra vehicles during the operations Euphrates Shield in northern Aleppo and Olive Branch in Afrin against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
- It is equipped with a dual electric machine gun, fired by the gunner inside.
- It is equipped with day and night vision scoops, and display screens for drivers and gunners. It has Level II armor.
- The 4×4 vehicle combines operational mobility with defensive and offensive weapon capabilities. Mounted with machine guns, the vehicle’s maximum effective range is about 2KM.
- It has a space for an operational crew of eight fighters, including a gunner and driver.
Ra’ed (Thunder) armored vehicle
- Manufactured by the Hamza (Hamzat) Division, operating under the SNA’s 2nd Brigade, and first displayed on 11 February 2021.
- It is an offensive vehicle propelled by an engine that runs in all weather conditions.
- It has a length of 5 m, height of 2.5 m and width of 2 m, and a weight of 14 tons.
- The 4×4 vehicle turns at a speed of 35 to 40 km/hour on flat land and 110 to 120 km/hour through mountainous terrain.
- It is armored on all sides against light and medium machineguns, with 13 cm thick bulletproof windows.
- It is equipped with a 360 degrees automatic 12.7 mm M2K machine gun, fired by the gunner inside.
- It is equipped with cameras and mine and explosive devices jammers.
- It has space for an operational crew of eight fighters.
Al-Fahed (Leopard) armored vehicle
- Manufactured by the Hamza (Hamzat) armed group at its affiliated facilities, and first displayed in September 2019.
- Designed after the Turkish BMC Kirpi armored vehicle.
- It is equipped with a rotary machine gun and day and night cameras.
- The 4×4 vehicle turns at a speed of 80 km/hour on flat land and 30 km/hour through mountainous terrain.
- It has a length of 6m, height of 3m, and width of 1.75 m.
- It has space for an operational crew of 10 fighters.
Activists claimed the Turkish army funded the manufacture of the two armored vehicles al-Fahed and al-Ra’ed. However, the Hamza Division spokesperson Majid al-Halabi told Enab Baladi that the vehicles were manufactured at the division’s Syria-based National Defense Factory by Syrian engineers and experts.
Jahannam (Hell) Cannon
- It is a massive piece of artillery developed by Ahrar al-Sham armed group in 2012 in the city of Binnish, northern countryside of Idlib. The developers re-purposed barrels of Russian T-72 and T-62 tanks.
- The Jahannam cannon’s projectile, a re-purposed gas cylinder, weighs up to 65 k, filled with 1 k of gunpowder.
- It has a range of 2000 m, which makes it a perfect weapon for urban warfare.
The cannon proved an operative piece of artillery during the opposition factions’ battles against the regime’s forces in Aleppo and Idlib.
After two years of experiments, the cannon was developed into the variant 300 cannon, becoming one of the prominent heavy weapons improvised by the factions.
Variants include Jahim (Hellfire) Cannon, developed in 2013, and the Quad Hell Cannon, which destructive capacity amounts to four Jahannam cannons fired at once.
Am-50 sniper rifle
- It is a clone of the Austrian rifle Steyr HS -50 rifle.
- The rifle is copied by Iran and called AM-50 and the regime, which named it Golan-S-01.
- The factions developed rifles of locally constructed parts and others captured during battles against the Syrian regime forces.
- The rifle has a range of 1,500 m and is chambered for 12.7 mm caliber ammunition.
The rifle is used by the fighters of SNA, HTS, and Ansar al-Tawhid, as well as Hurras al-Din (Guardians of Religion).
Sham R3 sniper rifle
- Sham R3 is the third variation of the original Sham series of remotely controlled weapons stations that use a 12.7×108 mm DShK heavy machine gun to engage targets from a stationary position.
- It can be operated and put in position by a four-man team, providing that they use a vehicle to get to the final firing position.
- Firing is conducted via a Play Station controller and a TV screen.
- Developers attached rocket motors to much larger bombs – a process that increases their destructive power while greatly reducing accuracy.
- These rockets were first used by the Syrian regime forces, which destroyed complete neighborhoods. In retaliation, the opposition factions constructed their own Elephant rockets.
- It is the larger warheads that make Elephant rockets different from their Grad prototypes.
- The warhead is a cylinder filled with processed fertilizers. The cylinder’s diameter is about 50 cm.
- The rocket weighs between 400 and 800 k, 10 times the weight of the Grad rockets.
- The rocket’s overall length is about 3 m. Like Grad systems, the rocket is fired electrically.
- The factions developed variants, such as Burkan 1, Islam 1, and Ra’ed.
- The rocket is manufactured by Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army).
- It consists of a 1.10 m long pipe, filled with a mixture of sugar and potassium nitrate.
- It has a launching platform, equipped with an electronic screen to heighten accuracy.
The Faylaq al-Rahman officer told Enab Baladi that the opposition factions were keen on manufacturing mortar shells. These were used for multiple purposes, particularly in urban warfare. Mortars were quite developed, unlike home-grown rockets that require several experiments; excessive efforts; and additional skills. Locally manufactured rockets were mostly low on accuracy.
The factions also improvised stun grenades, used in different parts throughout Syria.
In eastern Ghouta, the factions converted 9 and 12 mm hunting rifles into RGC cannons. Developers removed projectile; kept the propellant; and fixed a metal tube to the nozzle, creating a platform for firing fuse grenades.
The officer added that the factions also manufactured 23 mm anti-aircraft gun cartridges, which they stopped using due to self-damaging problems. The munitions often exploded before reaching their targets and shrapnel was a major threat to civilians’ lives. They also manufactured RPG cartridges and refilled those of Kalashnikovs and PKS.
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