Syrian rebel fighters stand around an anti-aircraft machine gun mounted on a truck Aug. 4 in the northern city of Aleppo.The rebels are in need of up-to-date weapons, they said. (Ahmad Gharabli /AFP via Getty)
ALEPPO, Syria — On the edge of the Saif al-Dawla district of Aleppo, a commander argues with a rebel. He has ordered him to try to take out a regime tank, alone and with a single rocket-propelled grenade.
“Just one is enough — you can take out the whole army,” the commander tells the reluctant fighter.
The scene is one repeated across the frontlines of the battle between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian regime as the ragtag rebel forces try to take on tanks, helicopter gunships and fighter jets with armory that is desperately lacking.
Rebel commanders said the weapons they do have — Kalashnikovs, some RPGs, a handful of anti-aircraft guns — are old and expensive, while the weapons they need to take on the might of an army are impossible to come by.
“I flew MIG war planes for 12 years, and we are fighting these planes with Kalashnikovs, and not even good Kalashnikovs,” said Alaa Saadeddin, a defected pilot.
“Anti-aircraft guns are the heaviest weapon we have,” he added. “We don’t have ground-to-ground rockets, we don’t have Grads, we don’t have surface-to-air missiles.”
When Abu Maryam decided to set up his own rebel brigade, he approached the Liwa al-Tawhid, a rebel umbrella group, to ask about the possibility of getting weapons.
“Liwa al-Tawhid gave us two Kalashnikovs, but we had to find a way to buy the rest. We have 22 men and 12 guns, so we will go in groups. The first group will take the guns; when they come back, they will give the guns to the second group.”
And the weapons that are available don’t come cheap — a Kalashnikov goes for 150,000 Syrian pounds, nearly $2,400, bullets start at $2 each, and a grenade will set you back more than $150, according to commanders.
Syria’s rebels laugh at stories of Libyan fighters who regularly unloaded their weapons into the air to celebrate a victory on the battlefront.
“If any rebel in any group fires a single bullet in any direction other than at the enemy, they will be kicked out of the group,” Saadeddin said.
Western nations have said they are providing nonlethal aid, in the form of money or communications equipment, to the rebels, and the opposition Syrian National Council says countries including Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided arms to fighters inside the country.
Recycled pickle jars
But the weapons in evidence on the ground look as old as rebels claim they are — beaten-up guns and dusty RPGs that are a world away from the shiny new equipment that was in circulation on the Libyan battlefield.
“The vast majority of the weapons we have come from the regime - either we take them from the soldiers when we kill them, or we buy them from shabiha (pro-regime militiamen) or corrupt state army troops,” said Abu Walid, a commander in the city of Marea.
“Take this grenade for example; we bought it from an Alawite soldier,” he said, displaying a plump green grenade with Russian labeling.
“He loves money more than he loves his side,” he sneered.
Rebels said they had also managed to buy some weapons over the border, mainly in Iraq, but also in Lebanon and to a lesser extent in Turkey.
Abu Walid and other commanders said their forces were in need of everything from ammunition to ground-to-ground missiles. But the weapon that the rebels dream of most is something that can take out a plane.
The Syrian army has rained destruction on Aleppo and its surroundings with its fleet of warplanes and helicopter gunships.
“When we say a neighbourhood has been liberated, it doesn’t mean in the air, but only on the ground, because at any point a plane or helicopter can come (and strike), and we don’t have rockets,” said Abul Abbas, another Liwa al-Tawhid commander in Marea.
“The most important thing is to have a weapon that can take out a plane,” Abu Walid added emphatically.
In the absence of anything heavier, rebels are working to make homemade devices, bombs and rockets.
But a group of three rebels who proudly shared a video showing the firing of what they said was a homemade rocket admitted they had no way to aim the device and no idea where it lands.
“We’ve tried to make some homemade rockets, but honestly most of them have blown up in our faces,” Saadeddin said.
In the Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo, as a tank round landed ever closer, a group of rebels found themselves armed with nothing more than their Kalashnikovs and Molotov cocktails made out of old pickle jars.
“That’s the difference between us and them,” one commander said of the Syrian army. “They have everything; we have nothing but God.”