Passport by Foreign Policy published early last month a review of the arms that could “change the game” for rebels in Syria. One month later, we wondered if any of the weapons and supplies cited have made their way into rebel hands, and if so: how and at what level are they being procured? In case you haven’t seen the summary and really don’t like clicking links referenced at the top of blog posts, here is the list from Foreign Policy:
- anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons of particular varieties
- mortars (both guided and dumb)
Let’s use Recorded Future to interrogate the open source media record to identify how these weapons are being discussed related to Syrian rebels.
The network graph above shows us connections related to anti-aircraft weaponry including:
- Reported by International Business Times on March 18: “Hundreds of jihadists, equipped with light and medium machine guns, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons as well as four-wheel drive vehicles, have entered Syria from Jordan through the southern province of Daraa.”
- Reported by the Guardian on March 21: Most recently Higgins (aka Brown Moses) has documented Chinese-made FN6 Manpads in the hands of rebels fighting around Aleppo.
- Reported April 6 by Brown Moses: “One of the most significant recent acquisitions, reportedly from captured bases, are MANPADS, with the following videos showing examples reportedly captured from a number of locations in the south.”
- Reported April 9 by WND: “According to informed Middle Eastern security officials, the U.S. in recent weeks reportedly aided in the transfer via Turkey and and Saudi Arabia of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, or man-portable air-defense systems, to the Syrian rebels.”
The potential for unexpected, long lasting consequences of these weapons becoming prevalent in the conflict is not trivial. As pointed out on Twitter and a litany of comment sections, there are both short term war decisions (threats of targeting civilian assets) and the uncertainty of a well-armed but unregulated militant force in Syria.
In addition to the first report cited above regarding trainees entering Syria from Jordan with anti-tank weapons, we find other mentions of those weapons either being captured or smuggled into Syria:
- Reported April 6 by Brown Moses: Generally the opposition in the south have been poorly equipped compared to the groups in the north and around Deir Ez-Zor, so the arrival of large amounts of anti-tank weapons has made a significant difference.
- Reported by YNet on March 28: Western military experts say weapons delivered to anti-Assad forces by Mideast powers include more powerful anti-tank guns, rockets.
- Reported on March 22 by Foreign Policy: An American fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra is pictured with and charged by a U.S. court for using a weapon of mass destruction, in this case, a rocket-propelled grenade.
Unlike the other armaments highlighted so far, tanks are not an item being readily accessed by rebel forces. Not as simple as transferring lighter arms, any acquisition is coming from capturing Syrian government facilities. For example, Enduring America reported in late March: “rebels in the area — equipped with captured tanks, artillery, and other weapons — have been attacking ‘Assad’s artillery academy and other military installations that constitute the major strongholds of the regime in southwest Aleppo.’”
Mortars, however, are being used by rebel forces to wreak havoc, and the above timeline shows reported use of mortars by rebels during the last month. There is no shortage of these incidents although much of the discussion focuses on the destruction caused by various attacks versus detailing the origins of such weapons.
One key point, also mentioned earlier in this piece, is the impact on civilians as rebel troops get their hands on more devastating weapons: a March 28 mortar attack on Damascus left fifteen university students dead.
Finally, there is the factor of professionally training rebel forces. Headlines have recently focused on U.S.-backed training being conducted in Jordan, which has also included the transfer of arms when fresh forces are sent into Syria. But there is another influence reportedly emerging: according to YNet News, “Diplomatic sources told the Times that the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades [of Hamas] were training FSA units in the rebel-held neighbourhoods of Yalda, Jaramana and Babbila.”
A third source of training and tension is also reportedly very active on the Syrian-Iraqi border. According to Yahoo on April 3: “Two Iraqi intelligence officials told the AP that the [Jabhat al-Nusra and Al Qaida in Iraq] are sharing temporary military training camps in desert valleys along the 375-mile Syrian-Iraqi border, adding that militants in Syria were increasingly crossing into Iraq.
Though there is a stated division in operations and ideology of the officially recognized Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra, the unpredictable conflict seemingly makes it a tall order to keep weapons intended for the FSA exclusively under their control. The weapons mentioned by Foreign Policy are clearly already in the hands of Syrian rebels, but rather than changing the game they could perhaps be worsening the civilian toll in an already stagnant conflict. It’s worth keeping a very close eye on these trends as the European Union edges closer to injecting the war with weapons.