It’s been a slow go, in a situation that recalls the Lebanese Civil War.
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Aside from high costs, Lebanon is a fractious location where powerful pro-Assad groups, such as Hizballah, currently dominate the government.
When compared to other long-lasting (often successful) guerrilla outfits, such as the Viet Cong, Afghanistan’s Mujahedeen, and the FARC of Colombia, the FSA is left wanting. The Viet Cong’s arms deficiencies were addressed due to a shared border with the North Vietnamese and a steady stream of supplies from the USSR and China. The Mujahedeen had Pakistan as a supply depot and safe-zone. In Colombia, FARC shared a border with Venezuela. While it benefits from having a safe-zone to operate from in Turkey, this zone does not provide the FSA with arms and equipment.
The FSA is also at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to ammunition. November, 2011 saw Salon reporting that the FSA was, “short on weapons and ammunition.” This problem has found no correction, and in April, a Syrian Army defector who joined the FSA told the Daily Beast, “If they [FSA members] have a gun, they do not have ammunition”.
Writing in 1936 for the New Republic about the Spanish Civil War, John Cornford recorded another difficulty that can arise from having a lacking ammunition supply, “With the shortage of ammunition, it is difficult to get enough rifle practice, and many must go into battle without being able to shoot accurately.” However, in this case the FSA does have the advantage of being able to utilize the skills of thousands of Syrian Army defectors joining FSA ranks. Nevertheless, building any armed force does require the ability to hold effective training regimens.
The varied nature of firearms adopted by the FSA further exacerbates the ammunition shortage. The aforementioned FN FAL and Heckler and Koch G3 both use the large 7.62x51 NATO standard ammunition. M16s (and the M4 carbine), pricy but easily acquired in Lebanon, use another NATO standard round, the 5.56x45. Compare this to Soviet and modern Russian weapons the Syrian Army utilizes: AK-47 and SKS style rifles commonly use a 7.62x39 round. The PKM machine gun uses a 7.62x54 round, similar to the NATO 7.62x51, though it is in no way interchangeable.
Needless to say, Syria, once a client of the Soviet Union, is continuing the tradition by buying Russian and Russian caliber arms. Thus, Assad’s armories would have little supply of NATO standard ammunition.
In one Al Jazeera report from Homs, it is possible to spot an FN FAL, AK-47 style assault rifles, a Dragunov style sniper rifle, an M4, PKMs, and a shotgun. That’s five types of ammunition used by just one cut off unit.
Another important element of the rebel arms acquisition has been one of heavier equipment such as rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank missiles. The most common RPG, also easily found across the globe, is the Soviet-era RPG-7. The RPG-7 is simple to use, plentiful, and packs a punch. The antiquated but numerous Soviet-supplied BMPs armored personnel carriers and T-55 tanks (it’s the most prevalent tank available to the Syrians) often seen rolling through the streets of Syrian cities provide fodder for small RPG teams.
Over a decade of civil war in Lebanon produced a number of fighters skilled in fighting as RPG teams. The fact that many FSA fighters have received training in Lebanon also points to an expanding knowledge-base. Unfortunately for the rebels, RPG-7s have only so much effectiveness, especially when matched up against tanks such as the T-62 and newer T-72.
The real game-changer for the FSA will come when there is better access to anti-tank missiles. The rebels have made great use of another piece of Russian equipment, the Kornet-E anti-tank missile. In the late 1990s the Kornet-E was supplied to Syria, which in turn gave some of the missiles to Hizballah. The missiles were then used in 2006 against Israel. In the current fighting, rebel held Kornet-E missiles have made their presence known. In one instance, a Kornet team destroyed a Syrian air force Mig-23 on the ground.
Another reference from the Lebanese Civil War serves as an example for what FSA members could attempt to pull off versus Assad’s tanks. During the 1981 Battle of Zahle, a small number of Lebanese Forces troops held off Syrian mechanized units using much of the same equipment in use today. Zahle was also shelled at will by the Syrian forces. By utilizing the French Milan missile, the small LF force won the day. The LF had but two of these devices and 20 missiles for each, yet as researcher R.D. McLaurin noted, “Early kills by the Milan created substantial fear of the weapon among the Syrians.” With greater access to the modern Kornet-E — not just the missiles and launchers taken from Assad’s armories — strategically placed FSA units could potentially wreak havoc and cause paralysis amongst Assad’s armored units.
As time wears on, and calls from the FSA for arms and ammunition grow louder, it is likely the group will attempt to streamline its supplies and try to request the best possible tools for future operations. Libya promised arms for the FSA in 2011 and Lebanon stopped a Libyan arms shipment to the rebels in April. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also expressed interest in arming the Syrian rebels. When interviewed by the Washington Post, professor and analyst Daniel Byman concluded potential weapons that could be delivered would be “small arms, automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, perhaps mortars — things that in the end won’t stand up to a tank.” Regardless, a steady flow of these materials can be a great help when developing a more solid and better equipped fighting force.
UPDATE (6/13/12, 11:55 p.m.)
For some time, official Turkish spokesmen have denied the FSA was receiving arms from or through Turkey. In late March, one FSA spokesman told the press, “Enough talk about humanitarian aid…If Turkey had given us any arms, the regime would have changed by now.” And on June 13, a Turkish official told the Independent, “Turkey is not providing arms to anybody, nor sending armed elements to any neighbouring country, including Syria.”
Based on these official statements, I concluded in my original piece, “While it benefits from having a safe-zone to operate from in Turkey, this zone does not provide the FSA with arms and equipment.”
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H/T to National Review Online