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Inside the Free Syrian Army's Secret DIY Weapons Factory

The West weren't helping rebels out with weapons, so they're making them themselves.

Finished DIY mortars loaded onto a pick up truck at the Free Syrian Army's (FSA) secret munitions factory in Aleppo.

During my five months among Syria's rebels, there's one remark I've heard more than any other: we need ammunition and we need heavy weapons. Rebels 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 the regime are currently 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. Stuck there, the regime is able to fire heavy artillery at the residential neighbourhoods 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 epicentre of the conflict since fighting erupted in 2011. On the frontline, which runs through the city’s Salaheddin neighbourhood, I meet 17-year-old Mohamad. Together with two of his friends, he has set up a Molotov cocktail factory in what used to be a little girl’s bedroom. Mohamad shows 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 oilfields but the refineries are still in the regime’s hands, so it’s left to local villagers and tribesmen in provinces such as Deir Ezzor 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 frontline I find a slightly more professional operation. Three months ago, a local Free Syrian Army Commander called Abu Firas realised that his fighters were missing a trick by attacking the regime’s tanks with explosives and leaving them burnt out on the roadside. 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 tells me. He continues, explaining how some particularly fearless jihadist fighters from Yemen leap onto the regime’s tanks as they're still moving, rip open the doors and open up their machine guns onto the soldiers inside. Brutal and foolhardy, perhaps, but definitely effective, and with only superficial damage inflicted on the tank.

A rebel-captured Syrian government tank being fixed up in Abu Firas' workshop. 

The rebels bring their prizes to a mechanic’s workshop opposite Abu Firas’ office, where they're soon fixed up and made frontline-ready; a bit of welding and a new rebel logo to replace the regime’s and they’re good to go. It's Ramadan and the mechanic isn't working when I visit, but swinging open the garage doors – as we're met with the bizarre sight of two camouflaged tanks parked up next to a Toyota pick-up truck – Abu tells me he used to work on bulldozers and trucks and was able to teach himself tank mechanics pretty quickly.


After my visit to the war workshop, I hear about another rebel-run battle studio – a factory where rebel fighters are turning out hundreds of weapons every single day. The commander in charge is called Ahmad Afesh. He’s the leader of Aleppo’s Free Syria Brigade and he’s nervous; he’s never let a journalist anywhere near the factory before and he’s unsure about letting me in, never mind allowing me to take photographs once I’m inside.

A worker cutting 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 comes back with his answer: he's 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'm perfectly happy to make, so the next day we drive to the factory with the commander and park the car right inside.

It takes a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but when they do they're met by a scene that resembles a cross between Santa's workshop and a vignette from Britain during the Industrial Revolution. 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 directly 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 cutting down scaffolding rods to make the casings for rockets at the FSA's secret munitions factory.

At one workstation, a young man is cutting down lengths of scaffolding poles to rocket size. At another, a second worker is shaping and welding the tips. And at a third, once the body has been packed with explosives, the two parts are stuck together and sealed at the other end. It’s a tightly run operation and something Afesh is clearly very proud of, smiling as he holds up the end 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 says. “It’s hypocrisy – your David Cameron talks a lot but does nothing. Now we don’t need the West any more because we’re making all of our weapons ourselves.”

Grenade cases filled with explosives and topped off with wicks.

In the furthest, darkest corner, Afesh shows 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 tells me as he holds up one of his hand-held explosives. It’s packed with half a kilogram of TNT and is, he claims, five times more powerful that anything Assad’s soldiers can lob at his men.


An FSA rebel holds up a homemade grenade.

He hands me one. “This is for you, it’s a present,” he says. I turn 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 police 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 speaks again before I have the opportunity to say anything stupid: “Why don’t you throw it at David Cameron?”

Follow Hannah on Twitter: @hannahluci

More stories about the Free Syrian Army:

Syrian Rebels Are Getting Serious Help from a House in Suburban Ontario

Meet the Ladies of the Free Syrian Army

Interviews with Syrian Army Defectors

Gunrunning with the Free Syrian Army