Special Report

Arming the Free Syrian Army

It's been a slow go, in a situation that recalls the Lebanese Civil War.

By 6.12.12

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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.

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."

However, the situation in Turkey is far more complicated than how I presented it.

One researcher, who spent time in southern Turkey and Syria with the FSA, told me privately that Turkish (and possible Gulf Arab) arms shipments were being received by the Syrian rebels. According to this source, arms consignments were frequently passed to the FSA through the Turkish province of Hatay. The equipment was then driven into Syria along with fighters.

While it's possible Ankara is simply looking the other way as the FSA uses its ports and roads to transfer weapons, it's more likely there is some direct involvement. May saw reports stating Turkey's intelligence service was supplying Syrian rebels with AK-47 type weapons. This would point to a much less passive form of intervention by Ankara.

With the supply of AK-47 rifles it can be deduced that the FSA's suppliers' wish to maintain plausible deniability, maintain a cost-effective approach, all while simultaneously easing the difficulties faced by the FSA when acquiring parts, arms, or training.

However, the bigger development is that now a new military front against Assad is open. This area of operations is now seeing an upsurge in the availability of small-arms for FSA fighters and benefiting from being protected by the vastly superior (vis-à-vis Assad's forces) Turkish military. Needless to say, the safe-zone is now morphing into a platform where low-intensity conflict can be waged against Assad. 

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About the Author

Phillip Smyth is a journalist and researcher specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. He travels regularly to the region. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillipSmyth.