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Beyond the Dirty Dozen: the other killing tools of Syria’s civil war

Image: Christiaan Triebert

AOAV’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ lists some of the explosive weapons causing so much harm in Syria. But for all the suffering caused by those explosive weapons in the civil war, they are hardly the only culprits. Here, we take a summary overview of some of the other tools of violence in use by the belligerents – on both sides of the fighting – from small arms to battlefield weapons systems.

Like many nations previously linked to the USSR, Syria’s stockpile of small arms is largely of Soviet and Eastern Bloc origin. Accordingly, the arms used by both sides are largely non-Western. Imagery from the conflict shows a heavy preponderance of AK-47 pattern rifles, PK machine guns, Dragunov marksman rifles and other variants of Soviet-designed weaponry. More infrequently, members of the opposition have been seen with Belgian-made FN FAL rifles, some of which may date from a 1957 arms deal between Belgium and Syria, and others of which have probably crossed into Syria as part of arms shipments from Libya, Lebanon and other places.

Some rebels have been seen with other Western-origin weapons, including variants of the American M-16 rifle and the unusual-looking Austrian Steyr AUG. But given the irregularities in the rebels’ supply lines and the incompatibility between Western and Soviet weapons, it simply makes more sense for them to use the same types of weapons as the government, so they can utilise captured government ammunition. American-supplied weapons have very recently been sent to some rebel groups, but it is not yet clear what types of small arms these shipments contain.

The exact mechanisms of rebel small arms supply are not transparent. While it is fairly widely known that their supply lines come through Syria’s borders with Lebanon and Turkey and that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are bankrolling the larger-scale arms shipments, the supply of arms to opposition groups remains a controversial subject with little formal confirmation or data available.


One of the tens of millions of AK-pattern rifles in circulation.

The AK-47
The AK-47 is the most prolific firearm design in human history, and some of its dozens of variants have played a role in virtually every global conflict of the last half century. Originally designed by former Soviet army officer Mikhail Kalashnikov following his experiences fighting against the Germans in World War II, it represented a compromise between the long-range accuracy of full-scale rifle designs and the compact, short-range firepower of submachine guns. Equipped with its iconic 30-round “banana” magazine, the AK-47 revolutionized infantry combat by vastly increasing the versatility, mobility and firepower of an individual soldier. Part of the design’s enormous success is down to its legendary reliability – the AK-47 is not the most accurate, the lightest or the most powerful assault rifle in service, but its simplicity, ease of operation and ability to continue working in even the worst conditions has led to its widespread use by irregular forces.

Strictly speaking, most of the guns seen in Syria are not AK-47s. The original model with that designation was only in production for a few years, before being supplanted and modified into a range of improved models. These models include the AKM, the AK-74, and the AK-74M; not to mention a dizzying profusion of license-built models like the Chinese Type 56 and the Yugoslav M70. However, almost all of these weapons fire one of two cartridges (the 7.62x39mm or the 5.45x39mm), meaning that ammunition can be captured and re-used very easily even between weapons of different manufacture.

The Syrian government has made extensive use of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) in its campaign against the opposition. As with its stocks of small arms, these are overwhelmingly Soviet in origin. The Syrian Army primarily makes use of the T-72M main battle tank, along with a number of older T-62 and T-55 models. Armoured personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles are of a similar origin and vintage, with BMP series IFVs and BTR-series APCs being the most common. All of these vehicles are outdated and vulnerable to an opponent with modern equipment, but against lightly-armed insurgents – and the civilian populace around them – their weapons are more than sufficient to cause significant harm.

The Syrian rebels have captured a small number of these vehicles and used them against government forces, but in insufficient numbers to have any meaningful impact on the campaign. More significantly, they have created improvised fighting vehicles by mounting anti-aircraft guns, machine guns and rocket launchers on the backs of pickup trucks, and in a few cases even built their own armoured vehicles equipped with remotely-operated weapons systems.


A T-72 Main Battle Tank.

The T-72M
The T-72 Main Battle Tank is one of the most widely-used tank designs in modern history. It is both the most modern and most numerous design in service with the Syrian Army. Designed by the Soviet Union as a cheaper, less sophisticated alternative to the T-64 and T-80 tanks, the T-72 was used to equip the regular units of the Soviet Army and sold or gifted to Soviet allies in enormous quantities. The T-72 – particularly the export models, which were built with cheaper armour and less sophisticated electronics – is not a particularly effective design by modern standards. Nevertheless, against insurgents without sophisticated anti-tank weapons, its 125mm main gun (firing the OF-26 high explosive shell, amongst others) and pair of secondary machine guns are extremely dangerous, while its armour – while imperfect  – protects its crew from all but the most powerful and rarest anti-tank weapons operated by the insurgents.

Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft offer one of the most striking displays of power disparity between government forces and insurgents. The Syrian Air Force, prior to the rebellion, operated roughly 400 combat-capable aircraft; this number has been diminished by attrition and accident, but airstrikes continue apace. As with the Army, the Air Force operates largely older Soviet-designed aircraft; its most sophisticated being the MiG-29 multirole fighter and the Su-24 bomber. But the mainstays of the government’s campaign against the opposition have been its MiG-23 fighters, Su-22 ground attack planes, L-39 light attack planes and its Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters. Interestingly, Syria does operate one non-Soviet type, the French-built SA342 Gazelle scout/attack helicopter. But thus far there have been no reports of the Gazelle’s use in the conflict.


Image: Gaurika Wijeratne

The Mi-24 Hind
The Mi-24 Hind is a unique helicopter which combines the roles of transport and attack helicopter. Equipped with a front-facing heavy machine gun and weapons stations capable of carrying anti-tank and high explosive rockets, anti-tank guided missiles and a variety of bombs (including incendiaries and cluster bombs), the Hind also has a small troop compartment with room for up to 8 soldiers, who can also operate two side-facing machine guns. Infamous for its role during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan because of its terrifying appearance, high speed and thick armour, the Hind has been supplemented in Russian service by more modern and specialised types but remains a devastating and indiscriminate weapon.

While the Syrian opposition operates no aircraft, they have managed to acquire a number of air defence systems, and have successfully shot down a number of government helicopters and jets. The most versatile of these are the MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defence Systems), or shoulder-fired missiles. Essentially a heat-seeking missile in a tube, these weapons were developed in the 1960s to give infantry soldiers a better means of defending themselves against fast-moving jets and attack helicopters. Most commonly seen in Syria is the SA-7, a first-generation Soviet type, although the presence of newer SA-16, SA-24 and Chinese FN-6 models (imported via Sudan) have been documented as well.


The SA-7 launcher and missile.

In a war zone, the collateral risk from MANPADS is extremely limited – their warheads, unlike most of the Dirty Dozen, are very small and they cannot be launched at any target except aircraft without modification. The danger of arming rebels with this type of weapon is that in the wrong hands they could be used to target commercial airliners, which – with very few exceptions – have no defence whatsoever against them.

As with many other contemporary insurgencies, the opposition in Syria has been forced to improvise in order to continue its fight against the government. Without access to the kind of heavy combat arms available to government forces – armoured vehicles, artillery or attack aircraft, for example – the rebels have taken to building explosive weapons from whatever materials are at hand. These improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, take a range of forms, from grenade-sized projectiles launched manually to improvised artillery to large bombs emplaced on roadsides or delivered by car or truck. Most famously, in July 2012 an IED exploded in downtown Damascus, killing senior members of the Syrian military and intelligence staffs.


An IED formed of artillery shells and an anti-tank land mine.

To a lesser extent, the government has also employed IEDs. Government forces have dropped so-called “barrel bombs” on opposition-controlled areas from helicopters in lieu of more traditional air-dropped munitions. Given their complete lack of aerodynamic design or guidance, these are incredibly indiscriminate weapons, suitable only for terrorising civilians and causing random death. They have also used so-called Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions (IRAMs), which trade range and accuracy for greater explosive power.

Given that these weapons are built using non-standard materials under battlefield conditions by manufacturers who have learned the tools of the trade on the fly, they are incredibly dangerous for all sides.

Incendiary weapons, such as white phosphorous, napalm and thermite, are distinct from explosive or chemical weapons in that they are designed to destroy targets with extreme heat rather than blast, fragmentation or toxic effects. While incendiary weapons are not completely banned in international law, their use in populated areas is restricted by Protocol III of the Geneva Convention. They are indiscriminate, given that they are inherently difficult or impossible to control. Incendiary munitions are generally dropped by aircraft or fired by artillery to set on fire a large area for maximum effect, although smaller incendiaries for use by infantry are also produced.


Incendiary weapons demonstration.

In Syria, incendiary weapons have been used on populated areas including schools, leading to deaths and horrific injuries amongst civilians.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Violent attacks in Syria have been carried out with any number of other armaments from knives to hand grenades to Molotov cocktails. Perhaps most notoriously, chemical weapons have recently been used on civilians, with catastrophic effects. The willingness of other states to continue supplying and maintaining such weapons points to the danger of an unregulated, unmonitored international trade in arms.