Free Syrian Army battles surplus of fighters and shortage of guns

The outgunned Free Syrian Army is scrounging for weapons to arm the large number of volunteers coming forward to fight for the opposition.

Javier Manzano
Because of the shortage of weapons, many anti-Assad militias are resorting to home-made bombs (at left) and grenades, hoping to inflict as much damage as possible on the opposing side.

At a gathering of Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in Akhtrin, a small village about 30 miles northeast of Aleppo, a fighter burst through the door to alert the men that a nearby unit was clashing with government forces and needed reinforcements.

As the opposition grabbed their rifles and extra ammunition, loaded up three to a motorcycle, and sped off to the frontlines, several young men stood by watching.

“We don’t have a rifle, so we can’t do anything. We’re just waiting for the FSA to give us a weapon,” says Hassim al-Hasan, an unemployed resident of Akhtrin.

Fighters in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – and many who wish to join it – say their progress against government forces has been hindered by a shortage of weapons. What they've managed to gather, mostly basic rifles and machine guns from defected government troops, is little match for the Army’s air force and tanks. In some places, opposition forces have even started manufacturing homemade weapons as a way around the shortage.

In Akhtrin, an extremely limited number of weapons are available for sale, but prices range from $1,500 to $2,250 for a basic AK-47 rifle. Mr. Hassan says he’s even heard of some rifles selling for as much as $3,000 and bullets going for $2 each.

“Right now we have more people who want to fight than we have weapons,” says Ahmad Ibrahim, a senior member of the FSA in Akhtrin.

The opposition has had little success getting weapons or military support from nations who support it. Although American officials have publicly called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the United States has offered only limited assistance to the rebels and no weapons. 

The supply has also dried up in Turkey. At one illegal transit point along the border, an FSA member who asked to be referred to only by his nickname Abu Sufian said he was unable to smuggle in any weapons. 

“All the weapons we get are from the Assad army,” he says. “If there aren’t enough fighters we bring them in from Turkey. In the refugee camps inside Turkey there are people with a lot of military training so we help them come back.”

But they bring only a small number of fighters into Syria because with the weapons shortage, there isn’t a large need right now, he adds.

Amid these difficulties some FSA fighters have started to make their own weapons. An FSA unit in Aleppo has turned to one of its members to make grenades. The explosives are primitive – a cast iron tube with a fuse that the fighter lights with a match – but rebels say the bombs are effective.

"America and Europe just talk, talk, talk, but no one helps," says Abu Mohammad, an FSA commander in Aleppo who supplies his men with the homemade grenades. "There have been promises from other countries to provide us with arms, but no one has helped us."

In a small Syrian town near the Turkish border far removed from the fighting, Abdul Kareem Abu Azam, an FSA sniper says he can get a regular rifle now, but not a sniper rifle. Without a rifle suited for his specialized training, he says, he’s opted to stay off the frontlines.

“I would go to Aleppo if I had a sniper rifle,” he says. “We need good weapons, especially anti-aircraft weapons.”

Along the frontlines of Aleppo, now one of the main battles raging inside Syria, FSA fighters say they’re able to make do with what they have, but without any outside support, progress is likely to be slow.

“This Kalashnikov is my only weapon, but Bashar is fighting with helicopters, tanks, and fighter jets,” says Khalid al-Khatib, a former policeman who defected to the FSA. Still he adds, “We can get control of new areas with just these weapons.”

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