Syrian rebels outgunned by Assad regime's military might
Fighters are turning to Iraqi insurgent style improvised bombs
Devices made from pipes packed with fertilizer, chemicals and nuts and bolts
“These are the explosive devices, they are all made locally,” Captain Daoud Hassan Mahmoud explains, crouching down and pointing to the metal cylinders, perhaps just 20cm in diameter – dozens of them are lined up next to each other.
The cylinders are packed with a deadly concoction of fertilizer, explosives and other chemicals bought from the local market.
“I don’t want to name them so that the government doesn’t confiscate them from the shops,” Mahmoud says.
Placed on the top of the cylinder thick nuts and bolts – which will turn into lethal shards of shrapnel once detonated: Crude, but highly effective.
“This one would blow up a jeep or a pick-up,” he says, pointing to two of the cylinders which a rebel is roughly taping together, in the final stages of preparation. “For a tank or an armored vehicle we use six or eight.”
Outgunned by Assad’s forces, the captain’s team – the Daoud brigade – is resorting to Iraq-style guerilla warfare, turning to roadside bombs and, in at least one case, a suicide bombing.
Clips said to be of the brigade’s operations are often posted to YouTube, starting off with a Quranic verse, followed by stylized graphics of the brigade’s name, and its division – the Damascus Hawks.
Hardly audible below the music – a jihadi chorus meant to motivate – a voice narrates each attack.
The videos are all very similar in tone to those that came out of Iraq when al-Qaeda-allied insurgents there took on the US military. In that battlefield the IED proved to be the most effective weapons against American armor.
In Syria today it is also becoming the weapon of choice.
Mahmoud says they have received no outside help.
“Our funding is dependent on donations, a small collection of money. And what we’re able to capture from the Syrian military. We have not received any help even from the Free Syrian Army leadership or the Syrian National Council,” he claims.
And so, he says, they have had to improvise.
“We only have AK 47s, sniper rifles, machine guns,” Mahmoud explains. “And the regime is fighting us with tanks and rockets. We don’t have heavy weapons. We’re relying on mines and on making bombs.”
Mahmoud says he commands 300 men. The Damascus Hawks Division is made up of around 8,000, operating mostly in Idlib province. There is no way of confirming such claims.
The division, he says, was first made up of defectors and civilians and has gradually increased in numbers.
He says his men are moderate Islamists, who follow the military council of the Free Syrian Army, fighting for democracy.
“As military men, we don’t want to see one in power,” he says. “We want a democratically elected president, we have to separate the military from the presidency.
“We are also fighting corruption and those opportunists that are in the Idlib countryside,” he continues, referring to people he says are capitalizing on the uprising to wreak havoc and carry out operations in the name of the opposition.
The men look relaxed as they calmly mill around among the olive groves, AK 47s slung over their shoulders. This is territory they control. They are a ragtag collection of rebel fighters but in this part of Idlib province in Syria, they boast of taking the fight to the Syrian regime.
Just back from a mission, one of the fighters explains that it failed.
“We set up an ambush against Assad’s army using IEDs but they received intelligence about our plan and rerouted the convoy.”
Another claims his unit was successful.
“We destroyed an armored vehicle,” he boasts.
This is now the Syrian battlefield. Fifteen months on, peaceful protests have morphed into more of an insurgency that threatens to become an all out war.