Weapons of the Syrian War: Small Arms

Small arms were already plentiful in Syria before the war, thanks to years of Soviet and Russian support. More flooded in after the conflict began.

This series examines 10 categories of arms used in the Syrian conflict, a ghastly proving ground for much of what 21st-century militaries and militant groups can bring to war.

First use: March 18, 2011. After the Assad regime detained more than a dozen teenagers as part of its Arab Spring crackdown, protesters burned down a police headquarters in the southern city of Dara’a. In response, police fired tear gas at protesters, and then opened fire on them. 

Origin: Small arms were already plentiful in Syria before the war. The regime built up its stocks through decades of Soviet and Russian support, accumulating an arsenal of more than 2 million of them. Meanwhile, there were estimated to be more than 700,000 in the hands of Syrian civilians.

After the conflict began, small arms began flooding to Syrian rebel groups via Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Contributions arrived from nations like the U.S., Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. (The New York TimesC.J. Chivers tracked them.) Others arrived with defectors from the Syrian Army; an estimated 10,000 Syrian troops are believed to have quit in just the first six months, many of them reportedly refusing orders to shoot civilians. Still more weapons were seized from government caches.

More than 50 types of small arms have been spotted in Syria (not including nunchucks), from manufacturers spread across nearly two dozen countries.

Impact: Rifles and carbines dominated the early weeks of resistance. They were used particularly by regime security forces in neighborhood searches, which quickly broadened in scope and lethality. For jihadist factions, small arms are commonly used as a third-wave assaulting force, after first-wave artillery barrages and second-wave suicide bombers. These are tactics honed in Iraq and imported to devastating effect via extremists such as al-Qaeda and its breakaway affiliate, ISIS.

Here is a long, and no doubt incomplete, list of small arms used in the Syrian conflict:

A bit larger than small arms

Shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, or Man Portable Air Defense Systems, aka MANPADS:

  • July 2012: Acquired by rebels near Aleppo, via routes leading from Turkey.
  • August 2012: Rebels shot down a MiG-23 in East Syria’s Deir Al-Zour.
  • February 2013: Rebels downed a Syrian air force helicopter.

Chinese-made FN-6 missiles showed up less than a year after the conflict began. Among the countries that reportedly helped supply them: Qatar, Sudan, the United States.

Russian MANPADS: ”Defections and raids were believed to have contributed to the spread of SA-7 [man portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS]—a first-generation Soviet type—first evidenced in fully functional form in August [2012]; in partial form months earlier here,” The New York TimesC.J. Chivers wrote in August 2012.

“The SA-7 is an old system; its heat-seeking head can be thwarted by countermeasures on many modern military aircraft,” Chivers reported. ”The SA-7s would later be followed by newer SA-16 and SA-24 surface-to-air missiles—including some from the stockpiles of deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi.”

Antitank weapons: U.S.-made anti-tank weapons (TOW systems) appeared in rebel hands in spring 2014 (video below). Here’s a great animation by the Washington Post‘s Richard Johnson on the U.S.-made TOW system from 2014. Some Russian-made ATGMs equipped with night sights have been spotted in Syria as well.

For a lot more on the “Proliferation of MANPADS in Syria—Relevant Actors and Applicable Treaties for Policymakers,” Bellingcat’s open-source investigators offer this from June 2016.

OverviewSmall ArmsTanksArtilleryAirpower (Syrian)Anti‑Aircraft WeaponsBarrel BombsChemical WeaponsAirpower (Non‑Syrian)Cruise MissilesSuicide BombersAdvisors

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