Finished DIY mortars loaded onto a pickup truck at the Free Syrian Army's secret munitions factory in Aleppo.
During my five months in Syria, there's one remark I keep hearing from the rebels: we need ammunition and we need heavy weapons. The makeshift army fighting Bashar al-Assad's troops may be armed with plenty of ancient Kalashnikovs, a steady stream of young men ready to fight and die, and an unshakeable belief that Allah is on their side. But they're facing a regime equipped with Russian-made tanks and fighter jets, a regime that's apparently happy to unleash huge scud missiles and chemical weapons on its own population to keep itself in power.
The rebels and Assad's forces are locked in a particularly sticky, horrendously bloody stalemate; the rebels can hold the front lines but find it almost impossible to advance because they don't have the weapons and ammunition to make a push. The regime is able to fire heavy artillery at the residential neighborhoods held by the rebels, occasionally picking off fighters while simultaneously destroying the homes of ordinary citizens.
That's clearly not an ideal situation to be trapped in. So it was inevitable that, at some point, the rebels would stop relying on the West to ship over weapons, and instead work out how to make them themselves.
Mohamad's Molotov cocktail factory on the frontline in Salaheddin, Aleppo.
I decided to root out one of these DIY weaponry workshops and started my search in Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and the center of the conflict since fighting erupted in 2011. On the front line, which runs through the city’s Salaheddin neighborhood, I met 17-year-old Mohamad. Together with two of his friends, he's set up a Molotov cocktail factory in what used to be a little girl’s bedroom. Mohamad showed me how he fills glass juice bottles with oil, stuffs the tops with mattress foam and bits of ripped-up bed sheets, before lighting them up and flinging them towards the regime’s troops.
But there’s a big problem with Mohamad’s Molotovs: they tend not to explode when they smash. The only oil available in areas held by the rebels is the thick black stuff that comes from Syria’s eastern desert provinces. The rebels have captured most of the oil fields but the refineries are still in the regime’s hands, so it’s left to local villagers and tribesmen in the provinces to refine the black oil with homemade equipment. These guys don’t really know what they’re doing, so the fuel you buy from the jerry cans on the roadside will eventually screw up your car engine—and it’s completely useless for making Molotov cocktails.
A tank in Abu Firas' workshop that's had its regime logo replaced with the rebels' logo.
Away from the front lines I found a slightly more professional operation. Three months ago, a local Free Syrian Army commander named Abu Firas realized that his fighters were missing a trick by attacking the regime’s tanks with explosives and leaving them burnt out on the side of the road. Now when the rebels attack a regime checkpoint they try to leave the tanks in one piece so they can bring them over to the other side.
“Now that we are capturing heavy weapons, our fortunes will change,” Abu told me. He explained that some particularly fearless jihadist fighters from Yemen leap onto the regime’s tanks as they're still moving, rip open the doors, and unload their weapons upon the soldiers inside. Brutal and foolhardy, perhaps, but definitely effective, and a method that results in only superficial damage inflicted on the tank.
A rebel-captured Syrian government tank being fixed up in Abu Firas's workshop.
The rebels bring their prizes to a mechanic’s workshop opposite Abu Firas’s office, where they're soon fixed up and made battle-ready; a bit of welding and a new rebel logo to replace the regime’s and they’re good to go. It was Ramadan when I visited so the mechanic isn't working. As Abu swung the garage doors open open—we're met with the bizarre sight of two camouflaged tanks parked up next to a Toyota pickup truck—he told me he used to work on bulldozers and trucks and was able to teach himself how tanks operate pretty quickly.
After my visit to the war workshop, I heard about another rebel-run battle studio, a factory where fighters are turning out hundreds of weapons every day. The commander in charge is named Ahmad Afesh and he's the leader of Aleppo’s Free Syria Brigade. He got nervous when I first spoke to him—he’d never let a journalist anywhere near the factory before and he was unsure about letting me in, never mind allowing me to take photographs inside.
A worker cuts down lengths of metal tubing to make casing for grenades at the FSA's secret munitions factory.
After two days of negotiations via Skype and over the phone, he came back with his answer: he'd granting me access on the condition that I don't photograph the outside of the factory or reveal its location. That's a compromise I was perfectly happy to make, so the next day we drove to the factory with the commander.
It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but when they did I found myself in front of a scene resembling a cross between Santa's workshop and a Industrial Revolution–era Britain. Only instead of gift-wrapped toys or steam engine parts, the factory is cluttered with mortar casings and rockets—a Christmas grotto fit for the most battle-ready child you know.
By taking apart weapons they've captured from the regime's checkpoints, the rebels' manufacturing team has worked out how to reverse-engineer them, meaning Assad's troops are getting carbon copies of their weapons fired back at them.
A workstation at the FSA's secret munitions factory.
Fifteen men churn out 200 mortar rounds a day in Afesh's workshop along with countless rockets, hand grenades, and cartridges to be fired from the captured tanks that are being fixed up in Abu Firas’s garage. Aleppo was Syria’s industrial city and, when the factory owners fled as the fighting started, they left behind a treasure trove of machinery and materials that the rebels are now putting to use.
A worker cuts down scaffolding rods to make the casings for rockets at the FSA's secret munitions factory.
At one workstation, I saw a young man cutting down lengths of scaffolding poles to make rocket casings. At another, a worker was shaping and welding the rocket tips. And at a third, once the body got packed with explosives, the two parts got stuck together and sealed. It’s a tightly run operation, which Afesh is clearly very proud of. He smiled as he held up the finished product for me to inspect.
“We’ve waited for the West to send weapons to us for two years and they’ve sent nothing at all,” he said. “It’s hypocrisy—your David Cameron talks a lot but does nothing. Now we don’t need the West anymore because we’re making all of our weapons ourselves.”
Grenades assembled by the FSA.
In the furthest, darkest corner, Afesh showed me the grenade production line. Cases made of thin tubing are clamped shut at one end, loaded with nails and explosives, topped off with a fuse, and sealed with molten wax. “These are better than Assad’s, better than the Russians!” Afesh told me as he held up an example. It’s packed with a pound of TNT and, he claimed, is five times more powerful that anything Assad’s soldiers can lob at his men.
An FSA rebel holds up a homemade grenade.
He handed me one. “This is for you, it’s a present,” he said. I turned it over in my hand wondering just how volatile TNT is, how I might explain a homemade grenade in my rucksack to the Turkish border guards on my return to the place I'm staying, and how I can gracefully reject a gift that’s been given to me by a man who‘s in charge of a munitions factory. Luckily he spoke again before I had the opportunity to say anything stupid: “Why don’t you throw it at David Cameron?”
Follow Hannah on Twitter: @hannahluci
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