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Syrian regime, rebels constantly adapt arsenals

- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 23, 2012

ALEPPO, Syria — It was long past midnight, but the rebel commander couldn't sleep until his fighters returned from the Turkish border with the latest shipment of gear to help them battle the Syrian army.

In the morning, his team arrived with their prize: a single suitcase of night-vision goggles.

For the first time, his brigade's snipers would be able to strike back at night against regime snipers who already have night-vision capabilities in the street-by-street fights for territory in the battleground city of Aleppo.

"We need one for every fighter," said the commander, Osama, who leads one of the rebel brigades fighting in Aleppo. Still, the small number in the shipment "is better than nothing," he said. "We will surprise the enemy when we start using them."

He said the goggles were provided by a "sympathizer" in Europe, but refused to elaborate.

Piece by piece, Syria's rebels are slowly expanding their arsenal and getting their hands on more advanced weapons.

The process still appears to be haphazard and improvised, far from the reliable, organized pipeline that rebels have sought for much of the 19-month-old uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Instead, it often remains a scramble by individual units in the highly fragmented rebel forces to obtain what they can. Most units still rely on their staple arsenal of automatic weapons, hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenades, adapted to fit their needs.

But there have been notable advances. Most important, anti-aircraft missiles have made their first appearances in rebel hands in recent weeks, a weapon that some fighters boast could turn the tide against the regime.

Adaptation

Mr. Assad's forces have adapted too, although surprisingly at times they have turned more low-tech for the needs of urban warfare against guerrillas.

Rebel fighters say the most terrifying new regime weapons are cluster munitions, which scatter "bomblets" over a large area, and so-called "barrel" bombs.

The latter are fuel-soaked barrels packed with explosives and metal shards that are shoved out of helicopters or airplanes. They ignite the sand, and can cause horrendous blasts and casualties.

Some analysts say the tactics adopted by Mr. Assad signal a military under strain.

Although few expect the war to end soon, many say progressive changes in the sides' respective armories appear to favor the rebels in the long run.

"My sense is that the rebels are winning this war," said Jeffrey White, who studies Syria for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They are winning by inches, and the regime is doing its best to use its assets in innovative ways, but it is basically losing that fight."

Arms improvisation has been key to the rebel movement since it started months after the first protests of the anti-Assad uprising in March 2011.

After deadly government crackdowns, civilians and army defectors took up arms to protect their towns and attack government troops.

The rebels have long asked sympathetic nations to arm them, complaining that they cannot get strong enough weapons to face Mr. Assad's powerful arsenal of tanks, artillery, mortars and warplanes.

Though there have been reports of Persian Gulf nations funneling some arms, many rebel brigades say they have not received any such shipments.

For most of the conflict, they have relied on smugglers and weapons captured from the Syrian military.

A motley cache of weapons

While he waited for his team to come back with the night-vision goggles last week, Commander Osama showed The Associated Press a sampling of the improvised armory his brigade of several hundred men has collected. Assault rifles hung from the walls, and bullets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades sat in boxes nearby.

Osama spoke on condition that he be identified only by his first name for fear of retaliation against his family.

One rifle had a telescopic sight crudely welded to its body to turn it into a sniper's rifle. His men bought the scopes separately for $150 each and assembled them to rifles.

"It's not really good, but we have to do what we can," he said.

He also showed a rocket-propelled grenade launcher that his men captured in a recent raid on an army garrison. It was a much larger caliber than the rocket-propelled grenades his men have and can disable the regime's most advanced tanks — but only if the shooter gets within 400 yards.

"That takes unbelievable courage," he said, because regime tanks on the move are closely guarded by snipers.

Big guns

In what would be a significant advance, an official with the Free Syrian Army — the rebel's loose umbrella group — who is involved in procuring weapons said the rebels have now obtained dozens of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

Speaking to the AP in Turkey, the official would not say who provided the rockets. He spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Several videos posted by anti-regime activists online last week show the missiles. In one video, an SA-7 launcher has been set on a rock to display it. Another shows a fighter in Aleppo firing one at a passing fighter jet, with the curly smoke trail of the rocket visible.

It remains unclear how many SA-7 missiles rebels have and if they can use them successfully.

But "even if they don't bring anything down, it will make Syrian pilots think more about what they are doing," Mr. White said.

Reports of rebels shooting down regime aircraft have increased. Rebels claimed to have shot down at least two helicopters and two jets in August and September.

In the last week alone, however, amateur videos indicate they have shot down one jet and two helicopters.

In one case, a video purported to show the capture of the jet pilot. In another, a rebel held up what he said was the head of another pilot, salvaged from the wreckage of his helicopter.

Other videos indicate that rebels have a growing number of heavy-caliber anti-aircraft guns, many mounted on pickup trucks for easy movement, as well as mortars and different kinds of homemade rockets.

The videos appeared consistent with other AP reporting.

From its side, the Assad regime has adjusted its professional military — built to fight a war with Israel — to fight guerrillas in Syrian cities.

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