The military blog of the New York Times, “At War”, has maintained some excellent coverage of the complex conflict in Syria, digging down into the facts behind the headlines. One of its latest articles deals with the thorny issue of man-portable air-defence systems or MANPADS. So far the various anti-government insurgencies in Syria seem to have had mixed results with such weapons, employed to bring down or deter the use of low-flying fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft. Up to now most of these munitions came from existing Syrian Army stockpiles (captured or sold) and consisted of older weapons like the venerable SA-7 (more properly the 9K32 “Strela-2”, which the Irish Republican Army found to be problematical in their particular circumstances). In recent months however considerable numbers of newer anti-aircraft missiles have appeared: more stable versions of the SA-7 (from Libya as an unwelcome part of otherwise US-approved arms shipments), the Soviet-era SA-16 (possibly from old Yugoslavian-turned-Croatian arms dumps and with the knowledge of the Croatian government) and the Chinese-made FN-6 (probably from the international arms market via Qatar and with or without US input). “At War” assesses what all this means or may mean in the near future.
In a similar vein Brown Moses looks at the latest in improvised weaponry from the Syrian Opposition (or at least the Liwa Ahrar Sorya component of it). It is dubbed the Sayidna Omar Gun and is little more than a glorified howitzer. Its effectiveness is debatable, accuracy probably non-existent, but for area denial it is probably effective enough at close quarters (a 120kg explosive warhead with a claimed range 500-3500 metres though more likely closer to the 500m mark). It is a strange and rather cumbersome weapon the benefits of which are hard to see (how long would it take to “reload” and prepare for another salvo? And what of return fire in the meantime?). One would have imagined that explosive-launched munitions like the range of mortars developed by the Irish Republican Army from the 1970s to early ‘90s would be far more effective (like the Sayidna Omar Gun they used adapted gas canisters for the projectile). The IRA’s so-called Mark 15 mortar (a British military designation) was known colloquially as the “barrack buster” due to its hefty explosive payload and was relatively accurate at short ranges, with the added benefit of being able to be fired (almost) horizontally. Indeed Active Service Units of the Republican Army used the weapon against fortified installations, vehicles and even low flying aircraft (twice downing British Army helicopters in the run-up to the 1994 Ceasefire and forcing the British authorities to seek advice from Israeli military engineers in aborted plans to reinforce isolated British bases and outposts). However in the context of the Syrian conflict more value seems to be placed on the propaganda value of such hypermasculine weaponry than its tactical military value. A trap the Irish Republican Army fell into with the over-reliance and frequently reckless use of vehicle-carried or placed explosive ordnance.