Syria: assessing the FSA’s arsenal

For a fighting force that emerged under the international gaze, surprisingly little is known about the strength of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA). The necessary secrecy with which operations have been conducted, combined with the fluid nature of its command structure have made it somewhat of a strategic enigma.

The capabilities and capacities of its arsenal remains a key question, and one that is vital to its survival. But tracking the source of such weapons is a notoriously tricky endeavour. For all the talk of deliveries paid for by Gulf allies, the majority of rebel-held weapons still appear to have been acquired internally.

A large number are believed to have come with defecting soldiers, others will have been captured or bought. However, as small arms analyst and consultant Nic Jenzen-Jones points out, it is difficult to establish which weapons have been smuggled across the border and which have been acquired closer to home: “Like many countries in the region, the Syrian military holds stock of a diverse range of weaponry from various sources, making it difficult to establish a ‘baseline’ of arms. To complicate the matter further, many of the arms being smuggled in are either identical, or visually similar to those already in Syria.”

That the rebels are increasingly well-armed is indisputable. As the uprising enters its seventeenth bloody month, we are increasingly used to seeing civilians and defected soldiers waving kalashnikovs and riding trucks mounted with Soviet-era machine guns. So where have the weapons come from? For now, the regional neighbourhood seems to be the main external source.

Lebanon

A large number of small arms are believed to have been smuggled from neighbouring Lebanon. A report that Beirut’s gunshops are almost bare-shelved tallies with anecdotal and photographic evidence showing civilian rifles and shotguns cropping up in Syria.

In addition, M16A1 rifles and a small handful of M16A2s have been sighted. These are standard-issue weapons for the Lebanese military, suggesting that the weapons did indeed come from Syria’s neighbour, even if through informal channels.

Iraq

Iraq is also a key entry point for small arms and light weapons reaching the Syrian market. According to Jenzen-Jones, the Dulaim tribal group has sent a variety of reinforcements, including heavy machine guns (12.7x108mm Dushkas), and technicians capable of preparing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), as well as smaller arms procured through smuggling routes.

At least one Iraqi-made Tabuk-designated marksman’s rifle has been spotted. Jenzen-Jones believes that this almost certainly came from across the Iraqi border. Interestingly, he suggests that much of the Iraqis’ IED expertise was originally provided by Iran, now a key supporter of the Syrian regime.

Saudi Arabia?

Question marks hover over the proliferation of Steyr AUG assault rifles (one of which can be seen in this photograph). FSA soldiers have been photographed carrying these Austrian-made weapons in a number of areas, most recently in a video which alleged to show a pilot captured from a regime plane. The Steyr AUG is a standard-issue weapon of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, a fact that has left weapons experts scrabbling to locate details of the rifles’ serial numbers in the hope of identifying their origin.

The luck of the rebels

The FSA’s increasingly effective use of available weapons has been aided by a degree of serendipity. It emerged last week that rebel fighters had shot down a plane over Deir Ezzor using what appeared to be a truck-mounted KPV-14.5 heavy machine gun. Known for their range (3,000m horizontally and 2,000m vertically against low flying planes), the gunman appears to have hit the plane’s fuel tank at low altitude. But whether or not this was a lucky hit matters little. The rebels have proved capable of challenging the regime’s airpower, a development that may well change the strategic calculus for low-flying missions.
Regime tactics
In response, regime tactics have assumed a more frantic edge, conducting air-raids across the country. Until recently, airpower had been used sparingly, possibly to avoid the imposition of a no-fly zone. This reluctance has subsided over the past week, and ground incursions now follow airborne attacks in order to recapture territory. But while this ‘clear and hold’ strategy is devastating, it also unsustainable. The regime lacks numerical strength to secure ground through manpower alone, suggesting that it will struggle in the peripheral regions that fall further from reach by the day. In addition, military morale is believed to have plummeted to such depths that generals are increasingly reluctant to use ground troops, fearing the possibility of mass defections.Motivations for the strategic shift appear to be twofold. Firstly, the FSA have become increasingly well-organised and have begun to mirror the regime’s own clear and hold strategy. After identifying strongholds to defend, the rebels are managing to hold out for increasing periods of time. This was the case in Aleppo’s contested Salahaddine district, an area the rebels were able to take by surprise and defend for over than two weeks.
Secondly, the tactical heart of Bashar al-Assad’s regime may have been struck a fatal blow after last month’s rebel-orchestrated explosion in Damascus killed three key members of the president’s inner circle. On Wednesday it emerged that the hit to key figures may have been even greater than first imagined. In an interview with the Saudi Al-Watan newspaper, Russian deputy foreign minister claimed that his long-time acquaintance Maher al-Assad, had been seriously injured in the attack. Commander of the regime’s Republican Guards, Maher is widely believed to be Syria’s ‘second most powerful man’. He would be a huge strategic loss to the regime’s fight for survival.

As regime tactics grow more volatile and reactive in the face of FSA resistance, the strength of the rebel arsenal may yet prove decisive. Tracking its origins – both geographical and financial –  will shine a light on its depth, bringing greater clarity to the biggest question of all: which will be the last side standing?

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