Syrian rebels patch together an arsenal


TAL RIFAAT, Syria — As the midsummer sun blazed over this partially deserted Syrian city one recent afternoon, two young men appeared in a pickup truck in an alley near several auto repair workshops. Protruding from the truck’s bed was a steel pipe about 3 feet long and 2½ inches wide, resting on a simple frame.

The pipe was not for plumbing. It was a locally made mortar that had been used in July in the battle for Azaz, a city in northern Syria where antigovernment fighters drove away the army of President Bashar Assad.

“Now we have three or four of these, but we need to make more,’’ said Mustafa, one of the men who had assembled the weapons in small machine shops where since last year a key aspect of the revolution against Syria’s government has been waged by men who do not themselves often carry guns.

Mustafa’s handiwork, which also includes the manufacture of homemade mortar rounds (“We can make, every day, 25 shells,’’ he said), is part of a grass-roots effort to create the fighters’ diverse and idiosyncratic arsenal. That is an essential component of the rebels’ survival and their recent successes against the professionally trained military with which they are locked in a struggle for Syria’s future.

Working together and at the urging of antigovernment fighters, local businesses and tradesmen have organized into a network engaged in making weapons, in part by delegating tasks among the various trades. Some shops concoct explosives and propellants, a job that one organizer, Ahmed Turki, said had best been accomplished by a local painter with experience mixing chemicals. Others, who have electricians’ skills, wire together the circuits for makeshift bombs.

‘We will never enjoy eating, or sleeping, or drinking, or living life like humans, until this regime falls.’

Machinists and metallurgists assemble rockets and mortars, as well as the bodies for mortar and artillery shells or the large cylinders often used to hold the charges in roadside or truck bombs. (These men also manufacture truck mounts for machine guns captured from government forces; one novel design included using a disc brake from a motorcycle to arrest the movement of the weapon as its operator adjusts the gun’s elevation.)

Still others remove the propellant from captured tank and artillery rounds, which is then repurposed in the rebels’ arms.

As the forces opposed to Assad have appealed with little success to the West for weapons and foreign air support, the rebels have pursued their own project, developing the dark arts of weapon-making with surprising speed.

In many ways, the weapons gathered by the uprising here resemble those seen in the insurgencies fought against Western forces by Iraqis, or against Israel by Palestinians. This is in part, participants in the effort said, because they were able to model their weapons on those used in other Middle Eastern uprisings.

“We copied original Palestinian rockets,’’ said Turki, who has since designed seven styles of midrange explosive rockets.

He also drew up plans for a rear-loading, 62-millimeter towed artillery piece that is in development and that was displayed, between tests, to two journalists from The New York Times.

Mixing arms captured from their enemies with arms smuggled across borders, and adding in weapons that the rebels’ supporters have made in a constellation of hidden shops, Syria’s guerrilla brigades have managed to drive the conventionally equipped Syrian armed forces from areas 0f the northern countryside and, in certain areas, to put the government to siege.

This shadowy industry — resourceful and effective, but also dangerous — serves as more than a source of supply. It is also an indicator of both the rebels’ local organization and their near absence of outside logistical support.

Turki organizes tests for weapons that require a degree of consistency and precision, like rockets and mortars, whose ranges must be determined and whose projectiles’ flight should be stabilized by fins or by spin. The artillery piece he helped move off the drafting board has been fired about 20 times, though its range so far has not been ideal.

“We are still working on the shells,’’ said Badr, who made the weapon with the help of a 15-year-old assistant, Mohammed.

The rebels have also acquired many arms and weapons components from smugglers. These include blasting caps for bombs and telephone components used to manufacture remote-control detonators. And the rebels have been aided, they said, by what once would have seemed an unlikely source: the Pentagon’s distribution of weapons for Iraq’s security forces.

Two days before Mustafa showed his mortar, a Sunni tribesman who used the name Abu Khaled arrived in a truck at a residential compound used as a rebel base. Abu Khaled, who has family members in Anbar province, Iraq, and in eastern Syria, was a smuggler dropping off arms.

On this day he had three RPD light machine guns, a 60-millimeter mortar, five mortar rounds and a sack of 7.62x54R rifle cartridges. The rebels said Abu Khaled had been ferrying in weapons from Iraq since the uprising began last year.

In an interview, Abu Khaled said he acquired his weapons from the Iraqi army and police officers, who freely sold old stock and weapons provided them by the United States.

“They sell everything,’’ he said, referring to what he described as Iraq’s corrupt security forces.

Each man is trying to do his part to realize the same goal, Abu Khaled said.

‘‘We will never enjoy eating,’’ he said, ‘‘or sleeping, or drinking, or living life like humans, until this regime falls.’’

Boston Globe