Syrian rebels hone bomb skills to even the odds

C.J. Chivers reports: The lethal attack on Wednesday on President Bashar al-Assad’s senior security chiefs aligned neatly with a tactical shift that had changed the direction of Syria’s long conflict: the opposition fighters’ swift and successful adoption of makeshift bombs.

Bombs have been in rebel use since violence intensified in Syria in late 2011. But since midspring, anti-Assad fighters have become bolder and sharply more effective with their use, and not only in what is apparently their hand in the assassinations in Damascus.

Improvised bombs have steadily become the most punishing weapon in the otherwise underequipped rebels’ arsenal, repeatedly destroying Syria’s main battle tanks, halting army convoys and inflicting heavy casualties on government ground operations in areas where armed resistance is strong, Western analysts and rebel field commanders and fighters said.

In this way, even as the anti-Assad fighters have appealed for international intervention and other forms of material and military support, local fighters have created their own informal buffer zones, pockets of the Syrian countryside that are now largely free of government ground troops.

“The bomb is not only essential, it is a main part of our success,” said a former Syrian Army artillery major, who called himself Abu Akhmed and leads a fighting group in Idlib, a northern Syrian province, in a meeting in a house in this Turkish city crowded with fighters.

“When you think of why we are improving and getting stronger, it is not because more weapons are coming in from outside,” he added. “The main reason is because we are becoming more organized, and because of our bombs.”

The bombs that Abu Akhmed described, known in Western military jargon as improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, have done more than kill Syrian soldiers and deny the Syrian Army access to Syrian terrain.

The weapon that has long been championed in the popular imagination and public discourse of underground fighters as a means to kill or drive off foreign occupiers — whether Russians in Chechnya or Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan — has been turned against a standing Arab army by its own people.

The shift happened subtly. Joseph Holliday, a former American Army intelligence officer who is now an analyst covering Syria for the Institute of the Study of War, in Washington, said the changes were not in the rate of attacks, but in a rapidly evolving prowess.

One factor behind the rebels’ success in bombing that this reporter does not touch up is intelligence. Unlike an insurgency fighting an occupying army, the rebels are probably receiving an unparalleled amount of intelligence from would-be defectors who are still embedded in the Syrian army.

This points to the most fundamental problem that any state faces in trying to crush a popular uprising: the state cannot seal itself off from the people. It cannot be composed throughout by unshakable government loyalists. Just as the state gets attacked from without it will also be undermined from within.

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