It’s been a slow go, in a situation that recalls the Lebanese Civil War.
In many modern wars, small-arms have been at the forefront of most operations. When taking on enemies of much greater size and scope, individually wielded weapons are often all that stands between survival and being crushed. The supply, acquisition, and types of arms used by armed forces are all vital pieces to any conflict. This fact has never been more prescient than in Syria. Almost a year after Syrian rebels took-up arms against dictator Bashar al-Assad, the disjointed rebel force that makes up the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is facing many armament difficulties.
Originally created to protect peaceful demonstrators against the Assad regime, the FSA has morphed into the anti-Assad guerrilla insurgent force. It is obvious that Assad and his supporters are in no way pro-American, yet the FSA also has a number of members who would also not lend themselves to a future pro-American Syria. For the time being, both sides are locked in a fight to the death.
As a result (as an objective outside observer) it’s necessary to review the prospects for FSA military success against the regime.
On a February trip to Syria, analyst Jonathan Spyer, observed: “The contrast between the determined self-belief of the FSA fighters and the obvious inadequacy of their AK-47s and RPG-7s in the face of regime armor, artillery and helicopters was obvious even then.”
This “inadequacy” is multiplied by other problems affecting the FSA’s arms supply network. Normally, supply of small arms for the group has come from private arms dealers and from what defectors could pilfer from Assad’s army’s stocks. Unfortunately for the FSA, central command for these units is at best a fantasy and a direct weapons supply is something their commanders can only dream about.
In this way the FSA can be compared to the Lebanese militias of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). The more effective militias eventually went so far as to standardize the calibers and types of weapons used. Naturally, the standardization of ammunition types and small-arms made supply and maintenance many times better.
In the early days of the Lebanese Civil War, Christian forces fighting stronger Palestinian, leftist, and other groups, had a smattering of antiquated and varied arms — some from Israel, others from Romania, some acquired from the Lebanese Army. Many were Soviet weapons bought from the overflowing stocks of Christian’s Palestinian foes.
In 1977, when these disparate Christian militias were placed under a more unified leadership and organizational structure, they became the Lebanese Forces (LF), resulting in marked changes. With more centralization, a more coherent fighting force was developed. By the early 1980s, the varied and dissimilar arms collection was replaced by a more uniform composition of Soviet bloc and Western arms in easily accessible calibers. It soon became common to associate the American made M16 rifle with the fighters of the LF.
Thus far, the FSA is in no position to attempt any standardization measures.
The random collection of arms also drew the attention of the FSA’s enemies. During one pro-Assad propaganda report, the ubiquitous German Heckler and Koch G3 rifle — used by over 60 countries, with copies manufactured in 15 countries — was claimed by Syrian TV to be an “Israeli weapon,” along with a number of hunting shotguns, and various AK-47 style rifles produced in eastern Europe.
While no definitive assessment can be made without looking at the weapon’s serial number, it is likely that the G3 rifle featured in the report actually originated from Lebanon (linked is a shot of the Lebanese Internal Security forces brandishing the rifle).
Even though Syria’s Assad backers distort where the varied FSA’s weapons originate, there is an interesting, albeit isolated, example of Israeli weaponry finding its way into FSA stocks. In a May Al Jazeera report, a Free Syrian Army fighter is shown with what appears to be the Belgian FN FAL. This weapon, another example of a rifle one can find around the world, was actually an Israeli produced copy.
In the late 1970s, Israel shipped the rifle to Lebanese Christian groups. Due to its wooden forearm and buttstock, Christian militias dubbed the rifle, “FAL-Hashab” (Wooden FAL). In fact, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the same rifle fired on Syrian soldiers and their allies in Lebanon 30 years ago.
The fact this weapon is being utilized further reinforces the fact that the FSA is not only searching high and low for any weaponry they can gain, but is actively engaging arms dealers in Lebanon.
For the FSA the importance of the Lebanese arms market highlights their dire straits. According to an MSNBC report, “rebels are determined to obtain these weapons at all cost, even as some dealers say they’re forbidden to sell to rebels.” Since the uprising began and then took an armed approach, prices for weapons have skyrocketed. In 2010, a year before the Syrian uprising, one Lebanese arms dealer told NOW Lebanon that a Glock handgun would be “priced at about $2,000.” Today in the United States, a new full-sized Glock 17 pistol costs around $500.
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