Rebels who have laid siege to a Syrian army base near Mayadeen in southeastern Syria have made mortar attacks a regular part of their routine.
Machine shops operated by rebel sympathizers now are turning out dozens of rockets that rebel forces use to pummel Syrian government positions from a distance – a capability that until recently belonged only to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
During their assault on an artillery base near Mayadeen last week, rebels belonging to the Jabhat al Nusra faction raced forward in a captured tank – a wild sight to anyone who has spent the last year tracking rebel groups whose personal weapons often are nothing more than shotguns and aging hunting rifles.
In the past few months, rebels have gained access to heavy weapons that they previously could only dream of – rockets, mortars, cannons and tanks, even portable surface-to-air missiles that in recent days they used to down Syrian aircraft. At the Bab al Hawa border crossing with Turkey on Thursday, about two dozen armored personnel carriers and tanks of various vintage were on display, evidence of recent rebel captures.
Many of the weapons come from Syrian government warehouses on bases that the rebels have overrun or from the rebels’ own shops.
“We’ve fired this five times today,” a rebel using the nom de guerre Abu Omar said as he showed off a mortar tube the rebels had constructed using the barrel of a Syrian army armored vehicle they had destroyed nearby. “We started using these about three months ago.”
“When we capture weapons from the government, we study them and copy them,” Abu Omar said. “We also learn how to make things from the Internet.”
For its part, the Syrian military also is using increasingly heavy munitions, particularly bombs dropped from jets and helicopters, a development that as much as anything is responsible for the enormous surge of refugees and displaced people that international aid organizations have reported in recent weeks. Millions of Syrians who once felt relatively safe in their homes as they waited out government shelling now have fled in the face of airstrikes that can bring down multistory buildings.
The result, ironically enough, has been a drop in civilian casualties in recent weeks, compared to highs over the summer, as people flee rather than risk being buried in the rubble.
The increase in weaponry has changed the dynamic of the conflict here, helping to even the two sides and spurring a rebel push that has seen several government bases overrun in recent weeks. U.S. officials have noted the rebel successes in continuing to decline to provide weapons.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, at a forum in Washington on Thursday, said that the recent gains made by Syrian rebels "are absolutely real. That said, there is no sign right now of any kind of political deal to be worked out between the opposition groups and the regime. Which means the fighting is going to go on."
"Arms are not a strategy. Arms are a tactic. We think that a military solution is not the best way for Syria," Ford said.
The rebels’ ability for the first time in the conflict to use weapons such as rockets and mortars may be more significant to the rebel advance than the few instances when they’ve downed Syrian government aircraft with shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Indeed, rebels besieging an artillery base inside Mayadeen last week had deployed a pair of anti-aircraft missiles, waiting to ambush a helicopter that had been flying in supplies for the besieged soldiers daily. In the end, though, the helicopter didn’t show, and the rebels took the base after the 150 Syrian soldiers abandoned it under fire after days of rebel bombardment.
Rebels stress that their homemade weaponry is far more accurate now than it was just a few months ago, when rebels admitted rockets they made often misfired wildly.
“We tested the rockets before we used them, and they are 90 percent accurate," said a weapons manufacturer who uses the nom de guerre Abu Ammar, who does his work in the same machine shop he’d used before the war to manufacture baking equipment.
"We know the rockets are effective because we heard the soldiers talking about them on the radio after we began using them," said a rebel commander who was visiting Abu Ammar’s shop and who declined to give his name.
Abu Ammar said that he had learned to manufacture the rockets from manuals obtained by the rebel military council in Deir al Zour, the province in which Mayadeen is located. "They are Qassem rockets," he said, referring to a type of rocket widely used by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip to attack targets inside Israel.
Perhaps underscoring their effectiveness, the factory in which Abu Ammar works was targeted by an airstrike minutes after he gave journalists a tour.
Despite claims of accuracy, recent rebel mortar attacks in Damascus, intended for the presidential palace and military targets, have killed civilians.
“Considering the amount of long-ranged weapons now being used by the rebels, including artillery and howitzers as well as multiple-barrel rocket launchers, mortars and rockets, it’s hard to imagine that their use in urban areas won’t result in an increase in civilian casualties,” said Elliot Higgins, who writes about the weaponry used in Syria at Brown Moses Blog.
But it is doubtful rebels will abandon the weapons. Rebels in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, said earlier this month that their ability to shell government positions in response to government shelling had resulted in less government shelling.
“They think now before they shell us,” said a rebel commander in Aleppo who also used the nom de guerre Abu Ammar.
The rebels even have found benefit in the Syrian government’s increasing use of cluster munitions, a weapon whose use soared across Syria in October, according to Nadim Houry, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
Cluster munitions, which break into hundreds of smaller bomblets before impact, have been outlawed by many countries as many of the bomblets frequently fail to explode and often kill civilians later on. Government aircraft used cluster munitions at least twice during fighting between rebels and government troops that had been sent to relieve the artillery base in Mayadeen last week.
But the unexploded cluster munitions also are retrieved and repurposed by the rebels in rockets and car bombs.
The Syrian government also is learning to improvise. One weapon that has spread fear in rebel-held areas is referred to simply as a “barmeel” – Arabic for barrel. The bombs consist of explosives, sometimes manufactured from fertilizer, that are packed into a metal cylinder and fitted with a simple fuse. Once the fuse is lit, the bomb is pushed out of a helicopter toward its target.
Theories for why the government is using such weapons range from a shortage of weaponry to the possibility that such bombs, which are often simply dumped out of the back of a helicopter, don’t require trained pilots to deploy them. They also allow the helicopters dropping the bombs to hover at altitudes that make it difficult for rebels to shoot them down. As a result, they are highly inaccurate.
Not every new weapon the rebels deploy is sophisticated. Members of the same group of fighters in Aleppo who said their mortar attacks were effectively reducing the government’s shelling also showed a reporter videos of fighters using a giant slingshot. Many fighters use homemade periscopes, sometimes mirrors fitted onto pieces of cardboard taped together, when laying siege to government positions.
At Abu Ammar’s workshop, a half-built, 15-foot-tall catapult made of steel stood outside his machine shop.
“We’re working on making a carriage so that it is mobile,” he said.
The war in eastern Syria