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Variety Of Weapons Increases In Syrian Conflict


In the months leading up to the cease-fire, combatants on both sides have escalated the scale of weaponry used in the conflict. The war in Syria is notoriously difficult to cover, making it very hard to know exactly what weapons are being used. Eliot Higgins runs the Brown-Moses blog, which is often cited as an authoritative source on the weapons used in the Syrian conflict. We've reached him in the United Kingdom. Mr. Higgins, thanks so much for being with us.

ELIOT HIGGINS: That's no problem.

SIMON: How have Syria's rebels gotten so far with so little weaponry until recently?

HIGGINS: I think part of it is that Syrian government forces, until very recently, have been very reluctant to actually go into the areas under the control of the Syrian opposition. This has meant they've relied on artillery attacks and more recently air power to do the damage. But when they're actually going on the ground, a lot of the time they're sending in undefended tanks. And if tanks are going in like that, you don't really need much more than a rocket-propelled grenade and a bit of cover to get around the back of it and hit in the rear and destroy it.

SIMON: But you've written recently about the increasing sophistication and destructive power of some of the weapons now in rebel hands. What are they using now?

HIGGINS: More recently, what we're seeing, is increased numbers of multi-barrel rocket launchers being sighted. And these are long-range rocket launchers, capable of firing quite a distance - up to eight miles, I believe. Very, very effective against stationary targets but only if you know how to fire them. And the question I have is really how well-trained are these opposition fighters when they're actually operating them.

SIMON: Where do rebels get rocket launchers?

HIGGINS: As far as I can see, most of this is actually coming from military bases, arms depots and the like.

SIMON: So, they're taking the government's weapons and using them against the government.

HIGGINS: That's correct. I've not seen any evidence that they're coming from abroad. Although it's always quite difficult to tell, I mean, we don't really get to see the packing slips that come along with them.

SIMON: You've written a good deal about what you've called DIY - do-it-yourself - weapons systems.

HIGGINS: That's correct.

SIMON: Give us an example of what you've noticed in the Syrian conflict.

HIGGINS: One of the most popular weapons I've seen is simple pipe bombs. They're made from a variety of explosive, some of which is actually harvest from unexploded bombs that have been dropped onto Syrian rebels. They break them open, take out the explosives, and put them into their own pipe bombs. They also use oversized slingshots to actually launch these and clear the distances over walls and into military compounds and fortified areas.

SIMON: Did you say oversized slingshots?

HIGGINS: Yes, that's right. It's one of the more unusual things I've seen in the conflict. They are literally just giant slingshots that are being used to throw these pipe bombs further than they would be able to reach normally.

SIMON: On the government side, I gather you've seen an escalation in the air war on that side too.

HIGGINS: That's correct. Really when we first saw helicopters being used in April, they were being used very rarely. And later on in June, they started using large high-explosive fragmentation bombs that were being dropped quiet frequently. Moving into August, jets started appearing in the skies with larger quantities of bombs. Following that in mid-October is when we started seeing the cluster bombs being used to cross Syria.

SIMON: Forgive my naiveté, but what took the government so long to start using those weapons?

HIGGINS: Well, the use of helicopters in April seems to been a direct result of the villages and towns rebelling. And really, since then, it seems that as the government just really failed to take control of the country and the opposition has become more experienced and well-equipped, there's been one escalation after another. The recent cluster bomb usage, I believe, may have been actually linked to a highway in the west of the country being captured, that connects to the capital - to Aleppo, where there's very heavy fighting at the moment. I believe at that point, the Syrian air force realized they really need to break out their most powerful weapons they could get away with using.

SIMON: Mr. Higgins, you often are cited as a source of the arms that are used in the conflict. We have to ask: you're sitting there in some kind of studio in the United Kingdom. How do you know this stuff?

HIGGINS: It's a combination of things really. I'm fortunate enough to have a lot of contacts with activists who provide me with information. But one thing I found is you can't really always trust what my activists are saying. So, you need to combine that with long as you (unintelligible) you get from journalists and I have a number of arms researchers I speak to. But what's very unusual about this Syrian conflict, especially compared to Libya, where the Internet was cut off for most of the conflict, is there's a vast number of videos being uploaded every day onto places like YouTube, showing all sorts of things from different parts of the country. And one thing that's very easy to identify are unexploded ordinance. For example, the cluster bombs, as soon as they started being used, we started seeing dozens and dozens of videos - used cluster bombs appearing across Syria.

SIMON: Eliot Higgins writes about the weapons being used in the Syrian civil war for the Brown-Moses blog. Mr. Higgins, thanks so much.

HIGGINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.