The rebels should never have fired back; they did so out of pride and thus exposed their position further to salvos of machine gun and mortar rounds from Assad’s forces.
At one point during this hopelessly mismatched exchange a Remington pump-action shotgun being used by one of the fighters, Abu Karim, simply fell apart, possibly due to metal fatigue.
After we had managed to get away, Commander Abdul Haq displayed the weapons of the 50 revolutionaries under his command: 20 hunting rifles shotguns and handguns, including a Soviet Star pistol proudly bearing the place of manufacture, CCCP, and the date, 1948, and a British Webley revolver, circa the 1930s. The next day the group got its first semi-automatic, a regime-issue Kalashnikov, bought from a soldier for $ 2,000.
This was near the village of Darkush, in Syria’s Idlib province in February last year, just before the bloodletting began in earnest and the opposition began to smuggle in weapons on a large scale. Distribution, however, remains haphazard among the various khatibas (battalions) and some of them have to rely on a cottage industry to provide themselves with arms.
Carpenters and plumbers have turned into proficient armourers. The ingenious improvisations include “grenades” fashioned from ornamental balls; catapults for firing incendiaries; “armoured cars” of corrugated iron sheets bolted on to pick-up trucks, IEDs (improvised explosive devices) made Afghan style from fertilisers and any assortment of home-made artillery and missiles. The Islamist fighters of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra are the best-armed among the opposition, receiving generous supplies from sympathisers in Qatar and the Gulf. On Wednesday the Congressional committees in Washington gave approval to the Obama administration’s plans to send military items to more moderate opposition factions. Britain and France have lifted European Union sanctions on Syria, but the Commons voted by 114 to one earlier this month in favour of a motion which requires the Government to hold a parliamentary vote before weapons can be sent.
US supplies are expected to be limited to small arms. British and American military figures have warned that is unlikely to have any effect on the course of the war. The West is opposed to sending the one item which could actually be a game-changer – surface-to-air missiles – due to fear they will fall into the hands of jihadists.
Even the more exotic of the rebels’ home-made weapons can be effective – most of the time. Last summer I witnessed a catapult being used to lob explosives into an army base in the town of al-Bab, near Aleppo, with some success. On the seventh launch, however, the whole structure collapsed; everyone stood stock still looking at the bomb on the ground before a general stampede away from the area.