The mortars falling on Damascus are made in Eastern Ghouta

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A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on April 5, 2014 shows smoke billowing from buildings following reported shelling by rebel fighters in the al-Itfaia neighbourhood of the capital Damascus. (Photo: AFP-HO/SANA)

By: Ahmad Hassan

Published Wednesday, April 30, 2014

There are two reasons for the extensive use of mortar bombs in the Syrian war. First, it is relatively easy to manufacture them locally, and second, it is easy to use them even when the geographic area where the fighters are concentrated is under siege.

The Damascus countryside: Jobar and al-Maliha are the two largest areas for manufacturing mortar bombs in Damascus’ Eastern Ghouta. This is mainly due to the presence of many scrap metal yards in both areas, which have provided materials for iron smelting factories that are also abundant there. These two factors make it possible for the Syrian capital to be the target of mortar attacks every time the military and political battle requires demonstrating that the armed opposition is a party to be reckoned with in the conflict.

There are four stages to manufacturing mortar bombs. The first stage requires collecting all the scrap metal that can be found. Children are relied on to collect scrap metal from the streets and from the debris of destroyed buildings in return for a very small amount of money (300 Syrian pounds or US$ 2.00 per child) or meals for them and their families who are in need. Child labor provides part of the needed amount. Another main source is the extensive looting of the homes of the refugees and the displaced. “After two years of war, it is easy to notice the widespread looting of the metal found in the city. One time, members of the Abu Musa al-Ashari Brigade disassembled a municipal street light pole and loaded it up on a large truck,” according to M. Gh., a displaced person from al-Maliha area in Eastern Ghouta.

After collecting the metal pieces, the group working at the smelting factories carries out the second phase. The molten iron is poured into ready-made molds of steel to create new forms of cast iron. “We often rely on the city’s youth who want to overthrow the regime. If someone has experience in manufacturing but does not want to participate, he is free not to but he has to train the young men who want to work and then he can go his own way,” says Abu Mohammed, a fighter in one the battalions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Jobar.

He added: “We don’t force anyone to work. But in light of the siege of Jobar, many young men come to us asking to work for very little pay. They understand the financial strain we are in. Some of them work in return for the meals the fighters cook daily.”

In the third phase, a group of young men that work in scrap metal shops cut the new pieces of iron. A 75 by 30 cm (29.5 by 11.8 in) piece is turned into five heads for a mortar bomb. The barrel of the mortar looks like an eggplant before it takes its new shape after it is hollowed out so it can be filled later with gunpowder and other metal pieces to ensure more injuries after the shell explodes. The mortar’s tail is cut off in order to be filled with an explosive launching fuel. Then the three parts of the mortar are assembled by making their ends in the shape of a spiral screw which facilitates the assembly process. The shells are then stored in wooden cases to be used later.

The biggest problem during this stage is providing the needed amounts of gunpowder and the launching pad. Abu Fouad, a fighter in Maghawir al-Ghouta Brigade, solves the problem quickly: “When we lack these materials, we try to get them from the brigades at one of the nearby fronts. If that’s not possible, we launch a surprise attack on one the military barracks and loot whatever we can of these materials.”

In the fourth stage, the fighters try to provide vehicles with uncovered beds. Their favorite choice is certain models like Skoda and Hyundai trucks or German-made trucks, which save them the burden of fortifying other trucks with steel to mitigate the intensity of the vibration caused by firing the mortars, especially that they prefer to set up the mortar’s base on a truck for easier escape after firing. In other cases, a circular base is manufactured for the mortar that determines the path of the projectile.

During the firing process, some of the armed opposition fighters use applications on tablet devices to locate the target more precisely. This method, however, cannot remedy the problem that the mortars’ targeting is very imprecise. In many cases, the shell explodes before its launch, which leads to injuries among those carrying out the operation. Not to mention the injuries incurred from the Syrian air force's strikes on launching sites, especially if the mortars are launched from the ground and not from moving vehicles.

Bolting the bipod to make targeting more accurate

Mortar shells land on random and imprecise sites, that is why armed opposition fighters resort to another method to ensure the most accurate targeting possible. The method is based on trial and error as a way to locate the target. If the target is one of the governmental buildings in Damascus, the fighters aim for the building in an approximate manner at the beginning. When the target is hit, they bolt the mortar’s bipod to make sure the building will be hit with dozens of shells later on. This method, however, is being used less often as air strikes by the Syrian army hit launching sites making it harder to bolt the mortar launcher in a specific geographic location.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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