New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jun 13, 2013
SARAQIB, Syria » The workers arrive by darkness, taking their stations at the vise and the lathe. Soon metal filings and sparks fly, and the stack of their creations grows at their feet: makeshift mortar shells to be fired through barrels salvaged from disabled Syrian army tanks.
Across northern Syria, rebel workshops like these are part of a clandestine network of primitive arms-making plants, a signature element of a militarily lopsided war.
Their products — machine-gun mounts, hand grenades, rockets, mortar shells, roadside bombs and the locally brewed explosives that are packed inside — help form the arsenal of a guerrilla force that has suffered serious setbacks this year in its effort to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
"Everybody knows we do not have the weapons we need to defend ourselves," said Abu Trad, a commander of the Saraqib Rebels Front, shortly before he allowed visitors into this mortar-round plant. "But we have the will, and we have humble means, and we have tools."
The value of workshop-grade weapons, while once crucial to the rebels' success in claiming territory in northern Syrian, may have substantially declined, even while Washington and its allies remain reluctant to arm the opposition.
Last spring, when Assad was struggling to confront the armed opposition that his crackdown had fueled, shops like these forced Syria's military to change tactics. The roads became so laced with their output of hidden bombs that the army stopped roaming areas where the rebels were strongest, and pulled back to defensive positions. The shops were a marker of the rebels' budding organization and lethal skill.
But the government has spent a year refitting its troops, Hezbollah has sent in reinforcements and Iran and Russia have kept Assad's forces resupplied.
These days the government's forces are less likely to venture out on patrols or expose themselves in small checkpoints, reducing their vulnerability to the rebels' makeshift bombs. And most of the shops' other weapons systems lack the accuracy, range or explosive punch to drive the army from the positions where it is entrenched and from where soldiers can fire back with barrages of more powerful and precise weapons.
Moreover, some of the locally made weapons are prone to malfunction, which can kill those who use them.
And yet the arms plants remain a prominent feature of the opposition's logistics, as arms flows from the Arab world fail to keep up with demand. Though the European Union lifted its embargo on arms transfers to the opposition last month, many rebels said they see the decision as a diplomatic tactic intended to pressure the Syrian government, and unlikely to lead to shipments from Western governments soon.
"They promise things all the time," said Maj. Mohammad Ali, who commands the fighters in northern Syria for the Grandsons of the Prophet, a large rebel formation. "We are now in the third year, and so far we have had so many decisions from the West and nothing was acted on."
Abu Trad and other rebels said the workshops have been as essential as the fighters on the front lines, and the laborers are part of a revolution's foundation. "The mother who cooks for the fighters is a revolutionary, the medic who helps the wounded is a revolutionary, and the man who makes the mortar and the shell is a revolutionary, too," he said.
On several trips into Syria, journalists for The visited four active arms workshops in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, interviewed other bomb- or weapons-makers who agreed to discuss their work but not to allow access to their plants, and examined other workshops' products on rebel bases and front lines.
The plant in Saraqib is one part of a larger and more complicated supply chain. On this night, it had received a batch of freshly cast shell bodies from a rebel foundry elsewhere. (Its workers declined to discuss its location, beyond saying that it was "underground.")
One man tightened the shells in a vise before sweeping over them with a grinder to remove surface imperfection. Each round was then passed to a welder who affixed pre-cut fins, designed to stabilize the rounds in flight.
The shells then were worked on by a machinist at a lathe, who shaped the nose so that a locally made fuze might be inserted. The workers said the rounds would be moved to yet another shop to be packed with explosive fill.
Finally, the rounds would be provided to front-line units equipped with sections of the 125-millimeter main guns from former government T-72 tanks. The barrels had been cut and converted to makeshift mortar systems, the fighters said.
Abu Trad said these weapons had been effective in attacking Syrian army checkpoints, and that the power of a 125-millimeter shell had frightened government soldiers.
But shells made in these ways carry many risks, including the danger that as a round accelerates after being fired, its crude fuze will be driven backward, causing the round to detonate in the tube.
This might have been what killed Azzam Alzier, the owner of an Internet cafe, one of the men in Saraqib first to take up arms. He had volunteered for mortar duty, his friends said, and been killed when one of the locally made rounds exploded as he fired it.
Another risk is that each round, because of inconsistencies inherent to workshop production, will fly a different height and distance, making the weapon dangerous to other rebels and potentially indiscriminate when fired in areas where soldiers are near civilians or civilian infrastructure.
Several workers in the shops noted that the dangers lie not just in using such weapons, but in manufacturing them.
At another plant, in the Aleppo countryside, Abu Walid, a young electrical engineer who said he and his colleagues principally make RDX, a plastic explosive for which manufacturing instructions are available online, said that he knew of roughly 10 people who had been killed in accidents while working with explosives for grenades and bombs.
And at a third plant, several workers described the perils that accompany one of their methods of obtaining explosives. One man displayed a plastic bag of foamlike chips of a TNT mix removed from old Soviet aircraft bombs that been dropped from Syrian air force jets but failed to explode. "What Bashar sends to us, we reuse," he said.
"It takes only 10 minutes to open a bomb," said another worker. "We disassemble the front fuze, we cut the bomb using the lathe."
Then the workers extract its contents to be repacked into rocket warheads. "We first find the explosive material as solid as a stone, then we grind it and it will break into pieces, and then we grind it again into powder," he said.
Given the amount of explosive in an aircraft bomb - sometimes more than 200 pounds, compared with roughly 2 ounces in a hand grenade - there is no chance of surviving a mistake. "It is not only about losing a limb," he said. "You and where you are will vanish."
Rockets from this shop go by the name Rakan 1, and are sections of pipe that together form a weapon about four feet long. The longest section is a fuel cell containing a mix of potassium nitrate and sugar. To one end is threaded a nozzle through which the burning propellant vents, driving the rocket into flight after the weapon is launched with an electric charge.
To the other is threaded a warhead containing a high-explosive fill, which in turn is fitted with an aluminum fuze well and a simple striker assembly designed to initiate the explosion when the warhead's nose strikes the ground.
The shop produces two of its rockets each day, the workers said. Abu Fawzi, 23, a furniture maker by trade who helped design Rakan 1, said it was the result of trial and error, and the Internet, hailed by security analysts as a virtual academy for waging war, was of little value.
"The first six or seven months we kept trying and held experiments, tests," he said. "At first we searched the Internet and we failed. We didn't find anything useful. After that we relied on ourselves and bit by bit, with God's help, we learned how."
Rebels disagree about the value of homemade projectiles. Some welcome them. Others noted that rockets and mortars often fail to fire, or fly unpredictable paths.
And the weapons, they said, are almost no match for the incoming fire the rebels face.
On a front in the arid farmland north of Hama, Khaled Muhammed Addibis, a rebel commander, pointed to a stack of rockets his fighters had tried to fire the previous day. They had failed to launch. Others had veered far off-target in flight. And none had reached their expected range.
"All we need is effective weapons," he said. "Effective weapons. Nothing else."