Saturday, April 6, 2013

A proxy war? The weapons of the Syrian revolution

Recently there have been claims that certain weapons, mostly from Croatia, are 'game-changers' for the Syrian resistance. I don't know what weapons fit that description, not only because I'm no military expert but also because it's unclear that the game has changed. For quite some time, hard-fought rebel advances have been punctuated by important successes and usually lesser reversals. Certain weapons beyond the ever-present assault rifles seem to have played a significant role in rebel victories. What do these weapons tell us about whether the Syrian revolution is fueled by US/Saudi/Qatari aid? Are they the equipment of a proxy war or a of a largely self-supplied revolution?

Here, not necessarily in order of importance, are the weapons:

  • Tanks and an armored personnel carrier, the BMP-1. In many attacks on army bases and some strongly held urban positions, these vehicles seem to accomplish what small arms can't. Sometimes the break down barriers and shelter fighters. Much more often, they are deployed as mobile artillery pieces, destroying or degrading régime strongpoints.
  • Self-propelled guns such as the Gvozdika. These are heavy artillery mounted on a tracked armored vehicle. They appear much less often than tanks, but with increasing frequency, and their fire is devastating - though limited numbers diminish that effect. There is also the Shilka, a tracked anti-aircraft gun system, sometimes used in urban settings.
  • Heavy artillery, in 122mm and 130mm calibres. These field pieces are very useful but again limited in numbers, and harder to deploy than armored vehicles.
  •  Recoilless rifles, including the ancient B10 and the more recent SPG-9. These are useful against tanks and lightly protected positions. They were in very widespread use long before the Croatian M60 model was spotted.
  • Truck-mounted guns, 'technicals'. Light trucks carry everything from heavy machine guns and recoilless rifles to light anti-aircraft guns or BMP-1 cannons. Used everywhere to support infantry assaults and ambushes.
  • Mortars, up to 160mm. These are widely used by both sides. They are inaccurate without spotters but can be fired in relative safety and reach behind fortified or strongly defended perimeters.
  • Unguided rocket systems including the Type 63 multiple launcher and various S-5 launchers, as well as many home-made systems. These play somewhat the same role as mortars.
  • Rocket-propelled grenade systems such as the ubiquitous RPG-9 and sometimes the more powerful RPG-29. There are also anti-tank rocket systems such as the Fagot and the Kornet, more advanced than the recently spotted M79 Osa from Croatia.
  • IEDs, improvised explosive devices. These play a major role in ambushes and are crucial for disrupting régime supply lines.

MANPADS, portable anti-aircraft rocket systems, have attracted a lot of attention, but it's not clear whether they have conferred much of a strategic or tactical advantage.

If this list is a reasonable survey of the weapons that make a difference for the rebels, it also makes a point. In several categories - tanks and armored personnel carriers, self-propelled guns and heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft guns and artillery - every single weapon was captured from the régime army. (IEDs, of course, are home-made.) In the other categories, even those which include weapons supplied by foreign powers, the preponderance of weapons were also captured. Most of the captures occurred before any analyst alleges that foreign-supplied weapons played an important role. The possible exceptions are anti-tank rocket systems, but a large proportion of these were obtained from non-state suppliers and smuggled in by the rebels themselves - this certainly holds for the most advanced models. As for MANPADS, no state is even contemplating providing them.

Those bound and determined to see the Syrian revolution as a proxy war can mutter all they like about game-changing arms deliveries and secret funding. Foreign military aid in one form or another (including from Syrian expatriates) no doubt has had an noticeable impact which might well increase. But the weapons evidence does not conjure up a proxy battle whose outcome is determined from outside. It tells of a revolution made and sustained by the Syrians themselves. Why then are so many so reluctant to acknowledge this?


  1. Thanks for your comment. I'd like to say, "my pleasure", but it doesn't exactly fit the piece!