Where Syria's opposition groups get their rockets

With few weapons flowing to the rebels fighting the Syrian regime, homemade rockets, mortars, and hand grenades have become increasingly used in the fight. 

Manu Brabo/AP
A Free Syrian Army fighter runs after attacking a tank with a rocket-propelled grenade during fighting in the Izaa district in Aleppo, Syria, in Sept.

While the battle for Aleppo grinds on in Syria's largest city, behind the front lines hums an operation crucial to the fight: homemade weapons manufacturing.

Aleppo is a major front in the 20-month conflict between the regime of President Bashar al Assad and the opposition fighting him. Opposition activists said Thursday the civil war has now claimed about 39,000 lives.

In Aleppo Province, the opposition's Abu Bakr Al Sadiq Brigade specializes in rockets, though it also produces hand grenades and other weapons. Brigade leaders recently displayed their newest creation – a rocket with a warhead that is the biggest they've made yet, weighing in at about 13 pounds. Though they're still testing it, they hope to soon send it to war as well.

With few weapons flowing to the armed Syrian opposition from outside Syria, the fighters turned to producing their own – like rockets, mortars, pipe bombs, hand grenades, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – early in the conflict. But in recent months, the efforts to manufacture rockets, in particular, appear to have become more organized. 

Efficient rocket "factories" that churn out significant numbers of the weapons appear to be replacing more haphazard and scattered efforts, particularly around Aleppo, says Eliot Higgins, who tracks the weapons of the Syrian conflict on his blog Brown Moses. In the past few months, videos of such operations have begun appearing more frequently on the YouTube channels run by groups of fighters and activists, which he monitors.  

In the Abu Bakr Al Sadiq headquarters, a high-ceilinged room that looks like a former workshop, leaders recently showed off several of their rockets and other handiwork. On the floor sat a clear plastic bag full of handmade grenades. One man in camouflage fatigues sat behind a desk passing out ammunition to fighters. The group's leader asked that its location not be revealed to avoid being targeted by regime bombs. 

Many of those in the room show signs of having been in close proximity to the fighting: One man has a cast on his leg; another a shrapnel wound in his soldier. The brigade's leader, Yasser El Sheikh, laughs when asked how he injured his fourth finger, which is now in a splint. 

Mr. Sheikh says his group has manufactured close to 1,000 rockets. They send all of their weapons to the Tawhid Division, one of the largest fighting groups in Aleppo, for use in battle there. He says, with annoyance, that Tawhid has begun posting videos on YouTube taking credit for weapons he says were manufactured by his brigade. 

The brigade's weapons manufacturers are a combination of former military men with weapons expertise and civilians who are chemical or other engineers. Some of their information comes from the Internet, but the learning curve was steep. One grenade-maker says he twice blew up rooms in his house while learning how to mix explosives. 

Like many of the groups making improvised weapons for the Syrian opposition, the brigade sometimes uses harvested explosives from unexploded regime bombs. They also make explosives using fertilizer and other, easy to come by ingredients, such as sugar. The group must also manufacture the propellant used in their rockets.

The brigade displays videos of dozens of rockets that were sent to the front in Aleppo, before bringing out their newest creation – the rocket with a warhead that weighs about 13 pounds. Most of the rockets they make have warheads packed explosives that weighed half of that. The new one will pack a stronger punch, but is also harder to propel, says Sheikh. "The most important thing about this missile is the material which propels it," he says. "It is difficult to send this large weight by missile."

Yet he's proud of the weapon. "You won't find a rocket like this in all the Middle East," says Sheikh. Mr. Higgins, who examined photos of the rocket, said its payload appears larger than those he regularly sees in videos.

In addition to rockets and hand grenades, pipe bombs and mortars, the opposition has effectively used IEDs to make parts of Aleppo and Idlib provinces dangerous terrain for regime vehicles.

The armed opposition turned to homemade weapons out of necessity. Many nations, including the United States, have refused to arm the fighters, and have kept others from sending heavy weapons as well, out of concern that the weapons will end up in the wrong hands. Syria's armed opposition is fractured and does not have an effective top-down control and command structure, and the hundreds of foreign jihadi fighters that have joined the ranks of the opposition have only increased such worries.

On the front lines of Aleppo recently, ammunition was not plentiful. Many outposts had only a few rocket propelled grenades and rationed their bullets. On the front line in Karem Al Jabal, opposition fighter Mohamed Al Qaraqash had more homemade grenades than conventional ones, and was using them with relish.  Hurling one over the wall toward a regime position, he waited for the satisfactory boom before hunkering down when regime soldiers fired back.

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