The Syrian Civil War, which has been raging for many years, is a remarkable and uniquely devestating conflict. For one, the war is enormously complex: hundreds of groups operate within Syria, each with its own leadership and aims. Alliances are mercurial and can shift with one declaration or surprise assault. Another interesting feature of the Syrian Civil War (SCW) is the weaponry and tactics employed by all sides. Bashar al-Assad’s somewhat dated but formidable array of Russian equipment has come up against systems from US-made Abrams tanks to German World War II field artillery pieces that should probably be in a museum. These weapons come from by a diverse array of sources: Germany supplies Panzerfaust 3 RPGs to the Kurds, Saudi Arabia arms its allies with TOW missiles and M16s, and a large number of Yugoslavian RAK-12 multiple launch rocket systems are in the hands of Southern Front rebels.
Often deprived of the “correct” equipment, Syrian rebels and government forces alike have also been fabricating all sorts of weapons, armor, and tactics for use on the battlefield. This article will attempt to present a few of the most important examples and explain them in some detail.
Originally popularized by Africa warlords, technicals are a prominent feature of many Middle Eastern battlefields. Normal militaries derive their mobile firepower from armored vehicles with guns and cannons. However, armored vehicles are exceedingly expensive and not available freely on the black market, as they are bulky and distinctive, making them difficult to smuggle. The technical is essentially a way for militant groups to supply their forces with highly mobile firepower when purchasing a normal fighting vehicle is not possible.
A technical is essentially a truck (usually a pickup) with some sort of heavy weapon mounted on the bed. The weapons vary greatly, from relatively small medium machineguns to formidable 23mm ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft cannons and RAK-12 multiple rocket launch systems. Technicals are fearsome weapons to encounter on the battlefield, as their light weight and relatively small size enables them to appear around corners, unleash a barrage of gunfire, and then speed back into cover, only to materialize at a different location later. This mobility is especially useful in wars where airstrikes pose a threat, as technicals are relatively easy to move and hide. They are also easier for inexperienced forces to maintain, as their commercial pickup underpinnings can be easily worked on by any mechanic. In addition, technicals are weapons of status, equivalent to tanks and heavy armor in a formal military — African warlords were often judged by how many technicals they possessed. Of course, the technicals have weaknesses as well: their light armor means they cannot fulfill the heavy assault role of an armored vehicle, as even small-arms gunfire will quickly incapacitate an exposed technical. Sometimes the recoil from the mounted weapon (especially large autocannons such as the ZU-23-2) can render sustained fire impossible, as the body of the vehicle rolls violently. Technical guns also lack stabilization and other aiming aids, meaning that firing on the move is generally a low-accuracy affair. For this reason, technicals usually fire from a stationary position and reposition when they are done engaging.
Artillery is important on the battlefield, as it allows for the softening of positions prior to an assault or for harassing enemies from a distance. However, real artillery pieces and mortars are large and sometimes hard to obtain. Ammunition also has to be purchased or captured, which is not always possible for rebels. To address this, the rebels have fashioned their own indirect fire weapons using a variety of components. These guns are often referred to as “hell cannons.” A common hell cannon design utilizes depleted propane tanks as rounds and some sort of metal cylinder as a barrel. A diverse array of explosive substances can be used as a propellant. The same goes for the warhead, as any payload that fits in a propane tank can be delivered using a hell cannon. Oftentimes, the projectiles will be packed with explosives and metal shrapnel (to increase fragmentation lethality.) Payloads may also include weaponized chemical gas, as rebels have allegedly used hell cannons to carry out gas attacks.
Some hell cannons feature creative carriages. A video (above) shows Syrian rebels using a wheeled front loader equipped with quadruple cannons in place of its bucket. Many other hell cannons have truck or car wheels bolted on to provide them with mobility. While the accuracy of the hell cannons is sure to vary based on the quality of construction, it is safe to assume these improvised guns are nowhere near as accurate as a real artillery piece. They do, however, pack quite a punch, as the large propane tank filled with shrapnel and high explosives is a fearsome and heavy projectile. Unfortunately for the operators, this can backfire, as the makeshift construction of the hell cannons sometimes results in their disintegration upon firing.
IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, have been a staple of battlefields worldwide since Vietnam, when the Vietcong rigged unexploded artillery rounds into improvised trip mines that killed unsuspecting combatants and noncombatants alike. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, usage of IEDs escalated, as severely outmatched insurgent groups adopted hit-and-run tactics against the occupying US military forces. These IEDs were often used against convoys (which followed relatively predictable and easy-to-mine routes) as well as soft civilian targets such as city centers and mosques.
IEDs have been used in Syria as well, especially by groups such as ISIS, which often bomb enemy-held cities to induce terror and damage morale. ISIS has also frequently used IEDs to carry out attacks outside of Syria, such as the deadly killings in Paris and the bombing of a Russian airliner. IEDs have the benefit of being simple to produce, as explosive substances are relatively easy to come by and only rudimentary knowledge of triggers and electronics is needed to rig a detonator to an explosive. Countering IEDs is difficult; the best way to prevent IED attacks is to ensure enemy combatants do not penetrate the front lines, but covert operators in cities are difficult to detect and eliminate. Western militaries often employ complex countermeasures such as explosive-sniffing dogs and lumbering mine resistant vehicles, but none of the parties in Syria have access to these kinds of resources, so IED attacks have become a routine part of battlefield operations and civilian life.
Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIEDs) are a hallmark of ISIS, but are sometimes used by other groups (mainly other Islamist factions). SVBIEDs are relatively simple in concept: pack a truck full of explosives and drive it into the enemy lines before triggering detonation. Essentially, an SVBIED is an IED with mobility. The detonation of an SVBIED is a massive psychological as well as physical shock. SVBIEDs can be packed with thousands of pounds of high explosives since large vehicles such as buses are often refitted as SVBIEDs. The formidable payload size gives SVBIEDs destructive power unmatched by any conventional weapon on the battlefield except for the largest bombs. SVBIEDs are used as shock weapons, rapidly rushing fighting positions and then blowing a hole in the defenses so that an offensive can be undertaken in the ensuing chaos. Of course, the employment of an SVBIED inevitably results in the death of its operator, either to enemy fire while trying to advance or upon detonation of the explosive. For this reason, SVBIEDs are primarily used by Islamist groups with a willingness to send their own members to an inevitable death as well as the dedicated recruits willing to sacrifice their lives.
SVBIEDs generally feature heavy armor, often in the form of iron plate, since the SVBIED must charge enemy lines and not be gunned down in the process. Because of this, the employment of SVBIEDs has increased the need for infantry forces to possess RPGs and ATGMs with which to stop SVBIED assaults; groups such as the YPG, which do not usually need to engage tanks, have anti-tank missiles for use against ISIS SVBIEDs and improvised armored vehicles.
Improvised Armored Vehicles
In addition to SVBIEDs, Syrian factions use many improvised armored vehicles whose task is protection, not self-destruction. As discussed above, Syrian factions often find it hard to acquire and operate purpose-built armored vehicles. Technicals can help fill this gap, but since they are unarmored, technicals are vulnerable to gunfire. When an unarmored vehicle will not suffice, many Syrian groups simply add some form of protection to a civilian vehicle.
There are many forms of such armor, some more effective than others. The most common method is to simply add metal plating to vehicles. This improves their protection level against small arms fire, but not high-quality anti-tank weapons. Sometimes, this plating may even cover the large portions of and windows, trading visibility for protection. The plating is heavy, which lessens the mobility of these vehicles and lowers their top speeds. No matter how well-plated a wheeled vehicle is, it will always have weak points, especially the tires and undercarriage. While improvised armor plating can provide resistance to small arms fire and allow for infantry assaults in contested areas, improvised armor crews always have to be on the lookout for anti-tank weapons.
Sometimes, the concept of improvised armor is taken beyond merely adding plating to pickups and vans. Some interesting examples have emerged, such as armored bulldozers converted into “tanks,” trucks with small cannons mounted on them, and fully armored buses with recoilless rifles mounted on top. The more ingenious rebel groups have even rigged remote controlled machineguns to their vehicles, in one case using Playstation controllers linked to motors and video fed by CCTV cameras. While some of these vehicles are interesting sights to behold, the effectiveness of such modifications is unclear, and it seems that in many cases the added weight of the armor probably makes the vehicles difficult to move and sacrifices most of their cross-country mobility. In addition, these vehicles make easy prey for any anti-armor weapons despite their extensive modifications. Bolt-on armor can also be burdensome and even dangerous, as poorly-attached armor can break off upon impact and harm occupants or bystanders when impacted.
The Syrian Arab Army, Assad’s force, also frequently adds armor to its tanks. This may take the form of sandbags and metal plates or even stranger additions, such as depleted shells and old treads. These types of improvised armor generally have little effect on an advanced anti-tank round, which is designed to penetrate hundreds of millimeters of high-quality steel armor and cares little about an few extra millimeters of iron plate.
Often times, the SAA will add slat armor, which is a type of spaced armor designed not to stop incoming rockets but merely to damage them or cause them to explode prematurely. While slat armor is an effective addition used by armies worldwide, it is also heavy; Syrian forces often appear to go overboard, enveloping their vehicles completely in slat armor. Slat armor is no silver bullet, and the protection afforded by it is negligible to moderate depending on the nature of the threat. Some newer missiles and rockets are designed to defeat slat armor by using a tandem warhead; against these missiles, the slat armor is largely deadweight. Below is a video showing the operation of a SAA T-72 with various forms of improvised armor. Especially notable is the improvised rebar armor on the sides of the turret (can be seen protruding from the left and right sides). The soldiers have also filled the space in between the metal plate armor and the tank with concrete blocks. The metal bricks on the tank are explosive reactive armor.
Tunnel bombing, a tactic used by various militaries for hundreds of years, has been spectacularly employed by various groups in the Syrian Civil War on multiple occasions. The purpose of a tunnel bombing is generally similar to that of an SVBIED: to blow a hole in defenses and to strike targets too well defended for a normal assault. Tunnel bombs have the added advantage of being very difficult to counter, as the only way to eliminate the threat of a tunnel bomb is to secure the tunnel entrance while construction is underway and make sure the bomb is not detonated: save for the entrance, tunnels are very difficult to detect. Entrances can often be concealed, and the entrance to the tunnel bomb is usually in enemy territory. Of course, tunnel bombing is not without its drawbacks. Mainly, tunnel drilling is relatively expensive and time-consuming, requiring drilling equipment and illumination, etc. Tunnels may be constructed for a lengthy period of time only to be detonated and have a relatively low impact, as the position initially targeted has been abandoned or the lines have shifted. This means that tunnel bombing is only really effective in areas where fighting is static: a mobile battlefield means the tunnel entrance will likely be overrun or the tunnel’s location will no longer correspond to an enemy target when excavation is completed.
When the tunnel bombing is well executed, however, its effects can be devastating, especially when the target is of high value. A tunnel bombing in Aleppo claimed 50 Syrian Army lives when a hotel used as a barracks was obliterated, and rebels have used tunnel bombs against hardened targets (especially bases and outposts) which proved impervious to assaults, often with great success. Tunnel bomb explosions are often more massive than even SVBIED detonations, because the amount of explosive required to not only destroy the target but get through the earth above the tunnel is truly massive; in some cases, the detonations employ upwards of 50 tons of TNT, yielding an explosion about as powerful as a small tactical nuclear weapon.
Syrian groups on all sides also use small commercial drones for a number of purposes. Many Syrian rebel groups recruit through propaganda videos, which can be filmed with drones. The drones can also be used for real-time surveillance of the battlefield, revealing enemy troop movements and positions. Drones are also useful for artillery spotting, as they can view the battlefield from above and help gunners make corrections to their shots. In a conventional war between two sophisticated adversaries such as the US and Russia, these drones would be quickly downed by electronic attack equipment, as their weak commercial-grade datalinks can be jammed with ease. Recent fighting in the Ukraine demonstrates this, as Russian jamming equipment has crippled much of the Ukrainian military’s equipment, including drones. In Syria, however, access to electronic attack equipment is limited, so these drones are relatively free to carry out their activities unharmed.
Unfortunately, the employment of many of these weapons in tactics in Syria has negative consequences for noncombatants. The hell cannons, tunnel bombs, IEDs and SVBIEDs especially are rather indiscriminate weapons that produce large and unpredictable blasts which can injure civilians. The hell cannons are a particularly egregious offender, as they are often used to bombard positions in cities. Their lack of accuracy frequently results in the deaths of civilians, as the rounds miss their intended targets and fall on inhabited areas instead.