Commonplace Weapons of the Syrian Conflict: Unconventional Weapons

Posted: August 9, 2015 in Syria, Syria Conflict, Unconventional Weapons
Tags: , ,

As with the previous post on conventional infantry firearms, anti-armor, anti-air, and artillery, this post is not intended to be all inclusive but rather to provide a general overview of the most commonly employed unconventional weapons found in Syria. By the very nature of unconventional weapons, there is little public data to be found on them, so some of the analysis contained herein will be rooted in visual observation, information given by regime sources on captured equipment, information given by opposition members on their specific equipment, and the open source analysis of Western governments. By their very nature, unconventional weapons are a moving target and constantly evolving to get around the countermeasures taken to foil them. Countermeasures to such weapons would take up a whole extra post, so I will leave that to someone who is both more experienced with employing and more knowledgeable on the history of countering unconventional weapons. For the sake of continuity, where available I will use wikipedia for a more advanced definition of each item. It is important to note that while unconventional weapons are primarily a function of insurgencies and non-state actors like ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, as logistical concerns make the procurement of new weapons difficult, the Syrian government has turned to such methods as well. In order, this post will cover:

  • IEDs including VBIEDs and Barrel Bombs
  • Chemical Weapons
  • Improvised Armored Vehicles
  • Technicals
  • IRAMs
  • Hell Cannons
  • Improvised Mortar Firing
  • Disabled Armored Vehicles as Bunkers
  • Sabotaged Munitions

IEDS Booby traps, improsived weapons, and the like have been an aspect of armed warfare for as long as their has been non-state actors and governments without access to large weapons industry. But the rise of the insurgency as the greatest challenge to state power has brought with it the rise of cottage industries dedicated to the production of weapons or components necessary to build weapons. The most visible of these weapons is the Improvised Explosive Device, but this term covers a broad range of weapons. We’ll cover them in greater detail here.

  • What’s an IED? What is HME? An IED, loosely defined, is an explosive device made from scavenged or homemade material, designed to be employed to caused damage or death to enemy equipment or personnel. They come in a wide range of sizes and types. In a munition rich environment like Iraq or Syria they will often wind up being comprised of bombs and ordnance that failed to explode, harvesting the explosives or components to repurpose them for new weapons. When there is less available explosive material, producers will turn to making Homemade Explosives or HME. This can be accomplished with commonplace agricultural or industrial chemicals and makes the denial of a source of material very difficult. An IED generally consists of four main components: case or shell to hold the explosive material, a source of fragmentation (often the shell, or metal strapped inside/outside the shell), the explosive material, and a means of detonation. Methods of employment will be listed below.
  • VBIEDs and SVBIED The carbomb or Vehicle Borne IED and its even more fearsome variant, the Suicide Vehicle Borne IED, comprise some of the most dangerous weapons in modern warfare. The civilian population has to be able to continue their daily lives and this means a continuing presence of vehicles in and around military operations. The ability of the insurgency to blend in with the population makes the VBIED an ideal weapon. Difficult to detect, and with a determined operator, even more difficult to counteract, the VBIED can pack several thousand pounds of explosives and cause tremendous damage on the scale of conventionally produced large scale bombs. While insurgencies lack precision munitions like GPS guided artillery shells or drone fired missiles, the SVBIED is the ultimate smart-munition, as its operator guides it towards its target, electing to try and blend in with his surroundings until the last minute or drive as fast as he can to avoid being prematurely detonated by gunfire or rockets. In the words of Reddit user /u/Ian_W “The critical bit about artillery isn’t the artillery but the shell factory standing behind it. One of the advantages of ISIL have is they do have the ability to manufacture their most-used assault artillery, the VBIED.” In an environment where conventional munitions are still a product of the nation state, being able to churn out highly damaging weapons is quite the boon. The SVBIED can be triggered by the operator, or remotely by a second party to ensure the operator doesn’t lose their nerve and flee.
  • S-Vests Essentially a compact version of the SVBIED, the s-vest or suicide vest, is essentially a vest or a belt of explosives, shrapnel, and a detonator. With a much smaller impact than the VBIED, the S-Vest is best suited to lower threat environments, so outside of active combat zones where a stranger approaching would be treated hostilely. These weapons are ideal for checkpoint operations where soldiers/police must get in close proximity with the individual, or crowded meeting places, to maximize damage to personnel.
  • Pressure Plate IED: The pressure plate IED is a pre-wired IED that require no one but the victim to detonate it. It comes in a variety of forms, some designed to defeat metal detectors and ground penetrating radar by use of non-metallic components, while others are simply repurposed conventional mines. The pressure plate IED works by separating the electrical components that would detonate the IED by either space or a small non-conductive piece of material. When the right amount pressure is applied (varying by IED to account for vehicle or personnel) the electrical components connect and the IED detonates. As there is no way to defeat this IED short of finding it, this is one of the most commonly found IEDs, both in Syria, and elsewhere in the world.
  • Command Wire IED: The command wire IED is an emplaced IED with a wire running from the device to the triggerman. It can be operated by electrical impulse, or by the trigger man yanking the wire. These IEDs are slightly more easy to detect as there will be a length of wire leading to a triggerman.
  • Remote Control IED: Remote control (or RC) IEDs are employed the same as command wire and pressure plate IEDs, but utilize a remote detonator. This can be accomplished by two transmitting devices, like those found in the base station and mobile set of a cordless phone, cell phones, car starters, and other such everyday items. This IED gives the detonator greater stand-off distance to avoid capture but control over detonation, to maximize the potential damage and avoid harming innocents or friendlies. However the RC IED is one of the most easily countered IEDs, by way of jamming devices which prevent the signal to detonate from being received as well as other electronic warfare devices that broadcast the signal to detonate in an attempt to detonate it before friendlies pass by.
  • Daisy Chain: One of the most feared IED attacks is the Daisy Chain. Not referring to any specific type of IED, it is rather a system of IEDs placed apart from each other on a stretch of road or trail, wired together for simultaneous detonation. The goal behind such an attack is to strike an entire convoy of troops or vehicles and cause total chaos and destruction. Where a single IED might take out one vehicle or a group of troops, a daisy chained IED network is capable of destroying an entire convoy or making a troop column combat ineffective. This tactic has been used extensively by both the government forces as well as the opposition to wreck enemy troop and equipment columns.
  • EFPs: Conventional IEDs come in all shapes and sizes with varying degrees of effectiveness against armored targets. Generally, to better target an armored vehicle, increasing the explosive yield of the IED is the best way to do so. But IED manufacturers with a high degree of skill and access to machine shops and high quality components have been manufacturing purpose built directional IEDs known as Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFP). Similar in purpose but different in design to a conventional shaped charge, an EFP is essentially a concave metal dish with an explosive charge behind it. When the weapon is detonated the metal dish is explosively cut free and forms into high velocity heavy metal slug. Almost useless against dismounted troops, the metal slug, if aimed properly is travelling at such speed and with such kinetic force that it can punch straight through armored targets like main battle tanks, making short work of lesser armored vehicles. The US Government along with Syrian conflict expert Eliot Higgins believe EFPs to be among the armaments the opposition in Syria.
  • Improvised Grenades: While numerous examples of the improvised grenades used in Syria exist in pictorial or video form, there is next to no data from the Syrian conflict on their makeup. But looking at their employment (using a lighter to ignite the fuse then throwing it as far as possible) and captured examples like these ball grenades Kurdish fighters captured from ISIL in Kobani, give us a good idea of their composition. In this particular example, a tape wrapped ball with a fuse and carrying/throwing handle, the most likely configuration would be an explosive core, harvested from undetonated ordnance or using HME, surrounded by shrapnel, wrapped in a covering (tape), with a quick burning fuse inserted. Video footage of these particular grenades in use has not surfaced yet, but it’s almost certain that is how they’re employed.
  • Barrel Bombs: Highly controversial, but nothing more than an IED rolled out the back of a helicopter or transport plane, the barrel bomb is almost exactly what it sounds like: a barrel filled with explosives, capped with detonator . Pioneered by Sudanese air forces, the barrel bomb has seen limited use in Sudan and Iraq with extensive use in Syria. The nature of such weapons means that they cannot be precisely targeted and instead rely on saturation to destroy enemy targets. Unfortunately this results in significant civilian death and destruction as these weapons land in residential areas (NSFW).

Chemical Weapons

  • Chlorine gas: The presence of chemical weapons in Syria is known and has been the point of considerable controversy as each side accuses the other of chemical weapon attacks. While the Syrian government has had limited cooperation in disposing of part of its chemical weapons stockpile, some chemical weapons are either too difficult to remove or too plentiful in non-weaponized form. Of these, chlorine gas, which has many civil and industrial purposes, can be very easily converted to use as a chemical weapon. Western governments have accused the Syrian military of employing chlorine gas multiple times, and the Syrian and Iraqi governments make claims that ISIL is employing it as well. The validity of such claims is disputed, but what is for sure is that the ability to manufacture such weapons exists in Syria. Typically this would be seen in the form of dumb bombs equipped with chlorine gas canisters, or artillery shells outfitted the same way. Chlorine gas causes irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat and high enough concentration or long enough exposure can cause asphyxiation. Unlike many tailor made chemical weapons, chlorine doesn’t hang in the air but settles rather quickly and dissipates in a short period of time, making it less than ideal as an area denial weapon.

TECHNICALS AND IMPROVISED ARMORED VEHICLES

  • Improvised Armored Vehicles More or less since armored vehicles first appeared on the battlefield, groups have been slapping metal armor onto tractors and trucks, calling them tanks and armored vehicles and driving into combat with them. The Syrian conflict is no different and there has been no shortage of homemade armored vehicles, from the 2012 Al-Ansar Brigade Playstation controller operated armored car to the Kurdish YPG’scomical looking armored personnel carries and ambulances. Essentially stripped vehicles or farm equipment with metal slabs bolted on, these ad hoc measures offer very little in the way of actual protection in a combat environment that is rife with anti-tank weapons. While such vehicle may provide limited cover from small arms fire, even heavy machine gun fire might be enough to actually cause more damage than if there was no armor at all. Any anti-armor rocket can cause a catastrophic kill on one of these vehicles and with enough velocity and kinetic power, heavy caliber rounds such as the commonplace DShk 12.7mm machine gun round can cause spalling where the impact of the round cause metal to flake off on the opposite side, spraying shrapnel inside. In an unarmored vehicle, the round would likely just pass through, connecting with whatever was inside and passing out the other side. In combat environments these vehicles have not stood up to the test of combat and are probably not worth the time, cost, or material put into them.
  • Technical While the improvised armored vehicle hasn’t proven to be an effective weapon in the Syrian conflict, the much written about “technical” has shown itself to be the preferred “cavalry” mount of both government and opposition forces. The only two real components of a technical is that it is a standard off the shelf vehicle that has been modified to accept heavy weaponry and a gunner. While the most commonly seen variant is the Hilux pickup truck or Bongo truck/van jeeps and sedans with the roof cut off off have also been seen. Generally they are equipped with a tripod or homemade weapon mount, meant to be fired from the standing position. The DShK and other heavy caliber machine guns like the KPV or converted tank/aerial machine guns are most commonly mounted, often fitted with a thin metal shield to protect the gunner from small arms fire, but offering the same spalling issues as improvised armored vehicles. Less frequently seen, recoilless rifles and anti tank weapons like the controversial TOW missile are mounted in the back to give a rapid reaction anti-armor capability. The technical is probably one of the most effective weapon systems of the Syrian conflict for its ability to combine high speed and mobility with heavy weaponry, and gives a rapid assault capability to anyone capable of gathering a few trucks and guns and welding some together some weapons mounts.

IMPROVISED ROCKET ASSISTED MUNITIONS

  • IRAMs (PDF) The Improvised Rocket Assisted Munition (IRAM) is little more than an IED strapped a to a rocket. Most commonly in the way of cooking gas cylinders filled with explosive welded to a metal pipe full of propellant, these munitions are generally fired from metal sleds slanted in the direction they want to fire them and aimed by guesstimating the distance they will go and adjusting the angle of the sled. Without a steady source of the same kind of propellent, the ability to aim such devices is impossible to do with any form of consistency and can be likened to the game Pocket Tanks where corrections are made by guessing the right angle and power mixture. Slightly more advanced IRAMs have come from machine shops in ISIL territory, though their function and accuracy is just as questionable. These IRAMs have been captured by the Kurdish YPG in Kobani, Syria.
  • Hell Cannons: Little more than an improvised mortar tube for IRAMs, Hell Cannons have come into heavy usage by the opposition as more of a fear tactic than anything else. Much like the governments barrel bombs, the Hell Cannons are not accurate enough to hit a point target but rather are used for area bombardment. Slightly more accurate than just firing from a sled, IRAMs launched from a Hell Cannon have a greater degree of control over trajectory, but suffer from the same issue as traditional IRAMs in terms of a lack of consistency in both availability of propellant and design. Operated exclusively by the opposition, a wide variety of Hell Cannons have surfaced and have been covered extensively by conflict reporters. As with barrel bombs the lack of accuracy from flinging IRAMs along a rough trajectory often into residential neighborhoods. Attributed as a leading cause civilian death and wounding, the (often questionable) Syrian Observatory for Human Rights attributes over 300 deaths to the use of the Hell Cannons.
  • Improvised Mortar Firing: As the war progresses and equipment becomes more and more worn out, measures are being taken to avoid death by equipment failure, as has been the case in numerous conflicts where improper or overuse of military equipment results in its destruction and often the death of the user. As a result, innovative ways to continue to fire these systems without the risk of spontaneous combustion have come about. One of the more common has been remotely firing rockets by way of electrical signal instead of manually, giving some standoff distance both to avoid counter-battery fire, and to ensure a detonation in the tube does not kill the firer. As with the example of the over-heated mortar detonating rounds in the tube provided in the video, mortar systems with the shell in suspended at the threat of the mortar tube and attached to a string or cord, allows the operator standoff distance to pull the cord and drop the round.

REPURPOSED ARMOR

  • Repurposing Disabled Armor: One of the hallmarks of this conflict is the oppositions quick adoption of captured armor, both tanks and otherwise. Recently in Deir Ezzor, ISIL forces are reported to have used a T-55 tank as a SVBIED indicating they either lacked parts for repair, fuel for use, or ammunition to shoot with. Rather than abandon it, its repurposing as an armored bomb may not have been the most ideal construction for a SVBIED, but it certainly increased the chances of it making it to its target without prematurely detonating from enemy fire. Similarly, the opposition outside of Damascus removed and repurposed the cannon from a disabled Russian BMP to fire it manually from inside a building. Finally, when an armored vehicle is disabled or in need of repair, both the government and the opposition have taken to towing the armored vehicle to a strategic point and emplacing it as a hardened bunker, utilizing the main gun as fixed artillery.

SABOTAGED MUNITIONS

  • Salted/Sabotaged Munitions: The Syrian army has reportedly been leaving caches of “salted” munitions for opposition groups to capture per reporting by the NY Times and other organizations. Such a tactic involves producing or manipulating bullets, shells, or other explosive weapons to explode upon use. Things like cutting short the fuze on a grenade, adding too much powder in a bullet (causing overpressure and explosion of the chamber), or mixing the wrong type of propellant in large rounds can both destroy the weapon system it is used in and seriously injure the combatant using it. The catch is that if both sides are using the same kind of weapons, there is the risk that they capture these weapons from the very people they planted them for and wind up using them in their own weapons.

There are more improvised weapons coming up in Syria every month, some incredibly creative and innovative, others crude and rudimentary. While there are plenty more worth mentioning and we could fill pages more with examples, I’m going to end it here. Worth looking at, is the DIY Weapons of the Syrian Rebels photo essay by The Atlantic.

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