During the hot years of the Cold War one of the few things the opposing superpowers of the USSR and the USA could agree upon was the effectiveness of the Russian-designed Kalashnikov automatic assault rifle. Both nations were prepared to supply the gun in its original or successor forms to sympathetic guerilla movements in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America, knowing that its straightforward and rugged reliability suited the paramilitary needs of the “Third World”. The Soviets were usually rather brazen in their largesse, though they occasionally found it more politic to express their generosity through their Warsaw Pact or communist allies, notably Cuba. The Americans on the other hand were slightly more surreptitious, normally resorting to deniable third parties, be they friendly governments or arms dealers.
This was particularly true in the late 1970s and ’80s when the country was still recovering from the humiliation of an unacknowledged defeat in Vietnam, and the eventual loss of huge stockpiles of US munitions to the Việt Cộng and PAVN forces of Hanoi. As AK-47s, AKMs, AK-74s and their derivatives proliferated in ever greater numbers across the globe, dispatching expensive and ill-suited American-made M16 assault rifles to peasant fighters in faraway deserts and jungles simply made no financial, military or political sense. Even more so when Congress latterly placed restrictions on arming some of the United States’ more unsavoury partners. Ironically these factors, and others, made the US one of the more important suppliers of the “people’s rifle” to the world.
However, since the calamitous events of 9/11 there has been a slow shift in America’s export policies towards the government and non-government forces it favours, manifested most obviously in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the United States initially made great efforts to reuse the armaments of the reconstituted Iraqi and Afghan armies, adding similar equipment purchased from the across the region, in recent years more and more American-manufactured munitions have appeared in local hands (admittedly, the more advanced or ostentatious systems have always been there, certainly since the days when Washington showered the Mujahideen precursors of the Taliban with Stinger surface-to-air missiles). One obvious sign of this has been the sudden abundance of several models of the M16 rifle in the global hotspots of the Middle East and south-eastern Europe.
This distribution has now reached its zenith – or nadir – in Syria where the US-made gun has gained unexpected popularity among the uncertain allies of the United States. Of course not all of the American weapons appearing in that war-torn territory have been channelled directly through the actions of the Pentagon or its agencies, the troubles in Libya and Iraq freeing up not inconsequential quantities of US-sold or licensed equipment which have been traded to elsewhere in the region (and as always, Lebanon remains the arms bazaar of the Middle East). However a significant number of the relatively modern M16A2s now turning up among the diverse Opposition forces in Syria are almost certainly derived from the United States itself, and not simply through its Turkish or Saudi allies.
The always excellent OSINT (Open Source INTelligence) blog has done a good job of collating and analysing some of the growth in US-supplied weapons to Syria, where their appearance roughly corresponds with the deployment of those anti-Assad factions now favoured by Washington:
“In this write-up we will be examining al-Moutasem Brigade (Arabic: لواء المعتصم); they are an FSA group that operates in Northern Aleppo Governorate around Azaz. The group is relatively new to the war in Syria; al-Moutasem’s videos first appeared on the internet in November, 2015.
Al-Moutasem Brigade uses a variety of American weapons and gear. While it is possible that some were purchased on the black market, the sheer number of American weapons that the group uses suggests that they were supplied these weapons.
Al-Moutasem has been spotted using multiple M16A2 rifles and at least one M16A2 with an ACOG scope. While the number of M16A2 rifles the group has is suggestive of foreign backing, it is not conclusive proof since significant numbers of M16A2 rifles are available on the black market. Furthermore, Turkey and a variety of other countries in the Middle East use the M16A2. Thus, the appearance of such a large number of M16A2 rifles with the group may point to foreign backing, but it does not necessarily point to explicit American backing of the group. However, the M16A2s combined with other evidence does suggest American backing.
Moving on to light and medium machine guns, al-Moutasem has several machine guns that point towards U.S. backing. The group has at least two M249 Light Machine Guns (LMG). The M249 LMG fires 5.56x45mm NATO ammunition using an M27 disintegrating link ammunition belt. The logistics involved in supplying ammunition for the M249 are certainly beyond the means of a small group like al-Moutasem. Most likely a foreign backer is supplying them with that ammunition. Furthermore, Al-Moutasem’s M249s have been upgraded with a SAVIT corporation “para-style” adjustable stock. This is the same stock used in the U.S. Paratrooper variant of the M249.
Finally, the al-Moutasem Brigade has been spotted firing an M240B (7.62x51mm NATO) Medium Machine Gun (MMG). While the M240B is used by Iraqi Special Operations Forces, it is still an incredibly uncommon weapon in the Middle East as a whole. The presence of this weapon among such a small rebel group clearly points to American support.
Al-Moutasem Brigade like many other groups in Syria owns a variety of mortar tubes of various sizes. What is unusual however is the presence of American mortar systems with the group. They have been spotted using the M224 60mm mortar, M252 81mm mortar and M120 120mm mortar on several occasions.
Al-Moutasem has several “technicals” some of which are mounted with American .50cal M2HB heavy machine guns.
The presence of the M2HB machine gun points to American backing. Furthermore, these guns are mounted using an American manufactured MK93 mount. This shock absorbing mount is used by the U.S. military to mount .50 cal M2HB machine guns on vehicles as well.”
I’d recommend a read of the whole post here.