The List

Syria's DIY Revolt

Syrian rebels are massively outgunned by Bashar al-Assad's regime. But as Assad's army bears down on Aleppo, it may find the armed opposition is more than ready.

"We are using bullets that cost $3," lamented a Syrian rebel commander, "and they are coming with bombs that cost thousands."

That may be so, but Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters have used those $3 bullets to bring President Bashar al-Assad's regime to the brink of collapse. Over the past week, they have seized control of several districts in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and economic hub. Now, as Assad musters his forces to retake the city, both sides are bracing for what could be a pivotal battle in the 16-month revolt.

How did Syria's rebels get so far with so little? As their strength has grown, they have used heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft cannons, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and they have even captured tanks to inflict damage on the Syrian military. As a largely improvised guerrilla force, they have also cobbled together some strange do-it-yourself (DIY) weapons systems, designed to hurl whatever explosives are on hand back at their enemies.

These weapons reflect the FSA's need for rapid movement, and they have at times proved effective in urban combat environments. Whether they will be enough for the rebels to repel the Syrian military in the battle of Aleppo, however, remains to be seen. Here is just some of the military hardware that Syria's opposition fighters are using against Assad.

 

TRUCK-MOUNTED WEAPONS

When the FSA does use vehicles, it prefers to use trucks mounted with Soviet-era DShK heavy machine guns or ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft cannons. Both are used widely by the Syrian military for anti-aircraft and fire support roles. The 23 mm ZU-23-2 can fire both high-explosive rounds and armor-piercing rounds, which are capable of penetrating the armor of the Syrian military's BMP infantry fighting vehicles. Although the smaller 12.7 mm round of the DShK -- nicknamed the Dushka, or "sweetie" in Russian -- is little threat to armored vehicles, it does pose a threat to the helicopters used by the Syrian air force.

Here we see a video that purports to show a DShK firing at a helicopter in the northern town of Azaz. How effective DShK fire is against aircraft at that range is questionable, especially without the detachable anti-aircraft sight that many of the DShKs in Syria appear to be missing. Nonetheless, the FSA boasts of having brought down helicopters using DShK fire, as these men from Azaz claim. This video claims to show a helicopter downed by rebels in Syria.


 

In his June report from the northern town of Kafer Zaita, journalist Austin Tice described how speedy truck-mounted weapons could gain an advantage over slower-moving tanks. In this video, reportedly filmed in Azaz, a truck mounted ZU-23-2 fires at a target and then speeds off to avoid retaliation.

These weapons are also useful for harassing the Syrian regime's air power, which the regime has seemingly relied on more frequently in recent days. In one battle, Tice described how a rebel commander attempted to draw helicopters away from a rebel force by engaging it with a DShK. "One helicopter gave chase, pursuing the black truck into the open countryside and expending significant machine-gun fire and at least three rockets," he wrote. "The truck traveled about six miles to the nearby town of Khan Sheikhoun, arriving unscathed before hiding in a garage."

 

 

TANKS

The FSA has captured tanks and BMP infantry fighting vehicles from defeated or defected Syrian military forces. This video, for example, claims to show the rebels in command of seven vehicles captured during fighting in the western city of Talbiseh. While earlier reports have claimed that armored vehicles such as these were used in operations by the FSA -- seemingly more acts of opportunity than part of planned assaults -- their use in combat has been sparing.

Video evidence has emerged in the last few weeks that the FSA is using Russian T-series main battle tanks. The Syrian army is estimated to have around 5,000 T-55, T-62, and T-72 tanks, which generally employ a variety of high-explosive, fragmentation, and armor-piercing rounds.

Tanks can support infantry by destroying fortified positions, but in the rare cases in which the FSA has used them, it seems they were used for surprise attacks on military checkpoints and bases. In this video reportedly from the city of Rastan, an urban center close to Talbiseh and the city of Homs, one of the brigades belonging to the al-Farouq Battalion shows off three captured T-62 tanks. But the brigade is merely using the tanks here for an impromptu military parade: Why are we not seeing these weapons used more frequently in combat?

 

The answer is simple: Rebel armor is a high-priority target for Assad's air and ground forces. Without the ability to defend from air attacks, tanks become sitting ducks for Assad's helicopters, and they are unable to escape Assad's ground forces as easily as infantry or truck-mounted weapons. This video shows a very rare example of a T-62 tank, which rebels say they captured during an attack on a house occupied by pro-Assad militiamen, being used to attack Assad's forces.

But a second video, which appears to show the same T-62, shows the risks inherent in using tanks: Shortly after it fires on an enemy target (near the 6:00 mark), it appears to be destroyed by return fire, killing the crew members who aren't lucky enough to leap out at the right moment. 


 

ROADSIDE BOMBS

Recent months have also seen the Syrian rebels add another tool to their arsenal: IEDs. The above video claims to show rebels using a roadside bomb to attack a tank on July 21 in the southern town of Tafas.

Like the guerrillas who fought against the U.S. military in Iraq before them, Syria's rebels have discovered the lethal potential of these weapons. IEDs have allowed the FSA to limit the Syrian army's ground operations, which has been reflected in the increased reports of helicopters being used by the Syrian armed forces. "The bomb [IEDs] is not only essential; it is a main part of our success," one rebel commander told New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers recently.

 

 

Soldiers being transported in trucks are extremely vulnerable to IED attacks, which may explain why there's frequently footage of tanks operating without infantry in narrow streets. The above video claims to show an attack on two trucks full of pro-Assad militiamen known as shabiha in the western city of Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon.

 

Lack of infantry support, however, merely causes another problem for the Syrian military -- it leaves the tanks vulnerable to RPG attacks. This footage from Aleppo purports to show FSA fighters exploiting that lack of infantry support to disable a T-72 tank with an RPG.

The FSA has had access to RPGs since the beginning of the armed uprising, making it the rebels' dominant anti-tank weapon. The occasional M72 LAW and AT-3 missile -- anti-tank weapons developed in the 1960s by the United States and Russia, respectively -- also make an appearance.

 

 

DO-IT-YOURSELF WEAPON SYSTEMS

When all else fails, Syrian rebels are manufacturing their own weapons to combat Assad's military. These DIY weapons have been less of a feature in Syria than in the Libyan civil war, where rocket pods welded to the back of trucks appeared to be everywhere you looked. But they're still present, ranging from the incredibly basic -- such as a giant slingshot used to launch explosives-filled bottles -- to the more complex. In the above video (at the 2:40 mark), Syrian rebels appear to commandeer a fuel truck to fashion a homemade flamethrower, which they use to set alight a building.

Some of these weapons systems even have their own workshops dedicated to producing ammunition for them. This video shows what appears to be one of the more elaborate examples -- a homemade multibarrel rocket-launcher system. Here rebels make rockets from the remains of RPGs and fill them with homemade explosives.

The upcoming battle between the Syrian army and the FSA in Aleppo will be a test for both sides. The FSA has had plenty of time to prepare IEDs and ambushes for Assad's forces, and the lack of infantry support for Syrian armor could result in a massive number of tank losses. We may also start to see some of the armored vehicles captured by the FSA in earlier fighting come into play.

For the FSA, it might not be a matter of winning in Aleppo, but of doing the most damage before retreating, as it has done in the past. But if the Syrian army continues to fight as it has been, it's likely to suffer heavy losses before retaking the city.

The List

5 Flashpoints in the South China Sea

Things are heating up in the Greater Pacific. Here are five key spots to watch.

Read more about China's military moment here.

As tensions mount in the South China Sea, an isolated stretch of the South Pacific has become the latest testing ground for how a regionally ascendant China will manage ties with its neighbors. Many fear that China will steamroll its neighbors in securing access to lucrative natural resources -- vast reserves of oil, natural gas, and minerals -- in the South China Sea. China's decision this week to name a little-known city on a postage stamp of an island in the South Pacific as the administrative capital of an enormous swath of ocean seemed to confirm those fears.

But what exactly is at stake in the South China Sea? For starters, as many as 213 billion barrels of oil --more than the reserves of any country except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela -- according to a 2008 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. As a result, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei are engaged in fierce jockeying over the rights to what at first glance are not more than a handful of rocks.

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SANSHA CITY

China's newest prefecture-level city, Sansha governs a land area across the contested Spratly and Paracel Islands of 5 square miles, a number dwarfed by the 770,000 square miles of ocean China claims is under Sansha's jurisdiction. Located on Woody Island, the largest island in the Paracels, Sansha is city of 3,500 whose residents, mostly fishermen, didn't have cellphone service until 2004 and who lack a school, but supposedly govern an area equal to one-tenth of China's land area. There is no airport on the island, but a lengthened runway can accommodate Chinese fighter jets. Sansha's provocative name means "three sandbanks," a reference to the three major atolls that make up most of the Paracels and are claimed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

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REED BANK

The site of what one Philippine energy company, Philex Petroleum, estimates to be a "massive" natural gas well, Reed Bank could contain twice the natural gas found in the Philippines' largest natural gas deposit, a windfall potentially worth billions of dollars. Drilling at the site, which becomes completely submerged at high tide, is expected to begin next year. Philex has expressed interest in jointly developing the reef, but tensions between China and the Philippines have slowed the project. In an effort to assert its territorial claim over the bank, the Philippine government began referring to it as Recto Bank last June in honor of 20th-century Filipino nationalist politician Claro M. Recto.

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MISCHIEF REEF

A circular reef 4 miles in diameter that lies completely submerged below the South China Sea, Mischief Reef takes its name from Heribert Mischief, a German crewmember under Henry Spratly, who is credited with discovering the reef in 1791. In 1994 China constructed a series of structures on stilts on top of the reef, thereby occupying it. The Chinese says the structures are shelters for Chinese fishermen; the Philippines, which also claims the reef, argues that the structures represent a "creeping invasion" by the Chinese. In 1996 China dredged the reef to allow larger vessels to enter. Since building the initial structures, China has fortified them and dredged the reef, which has led to speculation that the atoll could be used to dock warships.

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SCARBOROUGH SHOALS

The Scarborough Shoals are a series of rocks that enclose a 60-square-mile lagoon and barely crest the surface of the South Pacific. Named for an East India Company ship that sank after hitting the rock formation in 1784, the Scarborough Shoals lie about 200 miles due west of Manila and are claimed by the Philippines, China, and Taiwan. The shoals are considered one of several abundant fishing grounds in the South China Sea, but their most distinctive feature is an aging iron tower erected at the mouth of the underwater lagoon by the Philippine navy in 1965. In April, China and the Philippines engaged in a tense naval standoff over the shoals that became the centerpiece of a call by Philippine President Benigno Aquino to expand the nation's military.

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TAIPING ISLAND

The largest island in the Spratly chain, Taiping Island is controlled by Taiwan, which is reportedly considering extending the island's runway to better accommodate military aircraft. China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines also claim the island, which as the archipelago's largest landmass carries significant strategic importance. Taiwanese forces have occupied Taiping Island since 1955; its name, fittingly or ironically, means "Island of Peace."

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