While the US military is accustomed to destroying faraway targets with Predator drones from the comfort of a chair in Nevada and building "Iron Man" suits for the Special Forces, Syrian insurgents still turn to DIY tech to kill.
Slim resources for jihadists and rebel FSA fighters alike means a distinct technological disadvantage to the enemy. Besides increasingly facing off against each other, they're fighting Assad’s well-equipped forces: backed with Russian tanks, fighter jets, and Iranian drone technology. In other words, rebels are severely outgunned. Instead of rocket systems and bombers, they turn to their own brand of homemade killing machines.
Just a few weeks ago the Islamic Front announced via twitter they used a remote-controlled car loaded with explosives to devastating effect.
— Islamic Front En (@IslamicFront_En) May 11, 2014
Rolling up to an Assad army checkpoint in al-Hamra in eastern Hama Province, dramatic video shows the car bomb striking the regime’s checkpoint. The insurgents say 20 Syrian troops were killed as a result of their operation using the homemade rig, but those numbers are unconfirmed.
Since the Iraq war revolutionized suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices, remote-controlled car bombs migrated into the tactics of jihadists in Syria looking to save valuable fighters. Iraq is a known weapons trafficking corridor between rebel fighters in Syria and seasoned Iraqi insurgents fighting the Baghdad regime and previously American forces. Groups like ISIS and the al-Nusra Front have links to Iraq and Syria and importing bombing tradecraft isn’t unlikely.
In the early goings of the war, rebel fighters operating near Aleppo told me they got most of their weapons from Iraq. Now there are reports that the CIA and other western actors are supplying specific rebel units with arms. Even so, groups like the Free Syrian Army came up with some ingenious weapons without the help of foreign donors.
In 2013, videos emerged online of an FSA produced remote controlled machine gun. Perfectly equipped for street-to-street fighting and alleyways, the robotic gun is seen firing what looks like 50 calibre rounds. Connected by cable from a distance the fighter is seen operating the gun turret with a video controlled panel.
Remote controlled sniper rifles have also been used among FSA units. Snipers have been a fixture in the Syrian war since the very beginning, with professional regime snipers terrorizing rebel forces and civilians alike. FSA units use robotic sniper rifles rigged with LCD screens and remote laptops, to shoot at regime soldiers from safer confines. It’s unconfirmed whether these weapons are used widely, but several videos floating around online show their use on the battlefield.
For armored transportation some fighters famously rigged up a DIY tank that has the look of a vintage WWI tank from the Somme. According to AFP, the tank is built with spare car parts an engineer in Aleppo assembled together for over a month. The result is the “Sham II.” Driven with a PlayStation controller it became the emblem for Syrian DIY weaponry.
And lately it's not just insurgents and CIA-backed rebels using DIY weapons. Eliot Higgins (known as Brown Moses), an English blogger who uses social media to glean intelligence about the Syrian conflict, says the regime is starting to turn to DIY weaponry, possibly because of dwindling resources.
"Government forces have become increasingly reliant of helicopter dropped improvised 'barrel bombs' in place of conventional bombs," Higgins told me in an email. "[They] have developed incredibly powerful short range rocket system known as the Volcano, seemingly based on IRAMs (Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortars) used by Iranian backed militias in Iraq and Hezbollah," he said.
The bombs are essentially barrels filled with explosives and makeshift shrapnel, dropped from the back of Assad’s transport helicopters. The regime also developed a "Volcano" rocket that he says is "a devastating weapon in urban combat", with the largest type carrying "a warhead comparable to a SCUD missile."
For opposition forces, Higgins says DIY mortars are most popular. They're manufactured in huge quantities in makeshift weapons workshops.
Higgins says the rise of DIY weapons in the Syrian conflict is a reflection of the war itself. "For the opposition it's a case of making the most of what's available, but for the government I think it's adapting to the conflict they are fighting," Higgins said.