ALEPPO, Syria (AP) — 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 meant to help them battle the Syrian army. Wearing camouflage pants and black flip-flops, he waited anxiously, his eyes bloodshot.
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. 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 importantly, 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.
Assad’s forces have adapted too, although surprisingly they have at times 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 literally barrels packed with explosives, metal shards and sometimes fuel-soaked, igniting sand that are shoved out of helicopters or airplanes and can cause horrendous blasts and casualties.
Some analysts say the tactics adopted by 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 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.
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 RPGs his men have and can disable the regime’s most advanced tanks — but only if the shooter gets within 400 meters (yards).
“That takes unbelievable courage,” he said, because regime tanks on the move are closely guarded by snipers.
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, he 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,” said White.
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’ve 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, Assad’s regime has adjusted its professional military — built to fight a war with Israel — to fight guerrillas in Syrian cities.
Rebel fighters and activists say the “barrel bomb” is used nearly every day. On Saturday, an AP reporter visited a mosque in Aleppo that was hit by a barrel bomb three days earlier, killing at least 10 people: An annex to the mosque was razed, and the mosque itself and a half-dozen nearby apartment buildings nearby were severely damaged.
Amateur videos of barrel bombs that have failed to explode show them as large, metal containers filled with explosives and metal shards that are pushed manually from aircraft and detonate on impact with the ground. Some appear to be filled with sand soaked in fuel to cause huge fireballs.
One opposition activist in Aleppo said the barrel bombs don’t seem to have tactical aims beyond killing as many people as possible. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Joseph Holliday, who studies Syria for the Institute for the Study of War said the bombs have a wide blast radius — advantages when fighting rebels in an urban area. “The idea is to drop it on a building and try to get it to catch on fire,” he said.
Human Rights Watch has also accused Syria of using cluster munitions, which it says endanger civilians. Syria does not comment on its military tactics, though it has denied using cluster munitions.
The question is whether the regime is resorting to such things out of intentional tactics or necessity. Mark Hiznay of Human Rights Watch said the use of barrel bombs could reflect regime difficultly in transporting munitions to air bases in the battle zones, forcing soldiers to build their own.
Holliday cited other ways the regime has adapted, such as using pro-government gunmen known as shabiha to supplement its infantry, which has been weakened by defections. In northern Syria, it has also used its slower L-39 training jets for airstrikes rather than its advanced MiGs.
This could be tactical, he said: flying slower makes it easier to target groups of gunmen on the ground.
Or it could reflect strain. The L-39s are easier to fly and maintain, suggesting that defections may have deprived Syria of pilots who can fly advanced aircraft or that the regime lacks parts to keep those jets in the sky.
Hiznay of Human Right Watch said Syria may be saving its more advanced aircraft for a worse-case scenario. “If there is a land force invasion, this stuff is optimized for killing tanks and armored vehicles.”