Since the Turkish Armed Forces and their allies, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) factions, seized the Syrian city of Afrin in March 2018, there's been an ongoing insurgency lead by a number of Kurdish groups, most prominent of which is the Afrin Liberation Forces (HRE).
Allied with, and fighting alongside HRE, is a small amount of TKP/ML TİKKO fighters. TİKKO is the armed wing of the "Turkish Marxist–Leninist/Communist Party", which has been fighting the Turkish state since the 1970s. TİKKO has more recently risen to greater prominence around the world through its fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
There appears to be only a limited number of TİKKO fighters taking part in armed actions against the Turkish-backed forces in Afrin, but they do look to be well armed.
It's rare to see the arms of those fighting in Afrin in detail, as videos released by HRE are typically low quality and do not show weaponry clearly, if at all. I was lucky enough though to be recently shown a selection of firearms currently in use by a cell of TİKKO fighters in Afrin, directly from the fighters themselves.
The favoured weapons of the group are assault rifles, either chambered in 5.56x45mm or 5.45x39mm ammunition. Although a number of videos show 7.62x39mm AKMs in use by HRE, this particular TİKKO cell fighting alongside them prefer using more modern rifles.
Above is an example of two rifles which both appear to be M16A4 rifles that have been cut down. It's unclear if the stocks on these rifles are original also.
Cutting down the rifles would require a large amount of work to the gas system, and typically produces a less reliable and less accurate firearm. In order to produce this rifle, with a ~12" barrel, the original 20" M16A4 barrel would have to be cut down dramatically, gas tube shortened, gas port moved, and front sight block moved. This kind of modification is not ideal, and would only be carried out by forces in the field with no alternative. The user of the rifle also claims that the rifle suffers from keyholing issues (Unwanted instability and tumbling of bullets in flight), and a velocity drop, which is entirely possible given the nature of the modification to the M16.
However, there are legitimate reasons to do so: in this case, the lower rifle’s muzzle had been damaged in an explosion, so it had to be modified to make a working rifle out of what would otherwise be useless.
The rifle at the top of the image, however, has merely been shortened for the purposes of being lighter to carry and easier for insurgents to use. The insurgent forces in Afrin typically carry out swift assassinations of TFSA forces riding on motorbikes or in cars.
An interesting detail in the image above is the badge showing the face of İbrahim Kaypakkaya, the founder and prominent icon of TKP/ML. In what could be seen as an ironic twist, the insurgents heavily associated and close to his party now carry rifles that are manufactured by a country that he'd regard as imperialist and therefore an enemy.
The lower rifle is clearly set up for raids or assassinations, carrying a Pulsar Apex XD75 (3-6x magnification) thermal optic and a suppressor. This is ideal for night or low light operations, and is popular in non-state hands all over Syria, from Islamist groups in Idlib to the SDF fighting the remains of the the Islamic State. Whilst the XD75 is an older COTS optic, it is still ideal for guerilla use.
Technology and accessories of a type that a decade ago would typically only be in the the hands of state forces- usually Special Operations- are now in active use by irregular forces, including TİKKO. The use of thermal optics and suppressors is an excellent example of this.
Above is another weapon carried by the TİKKO cell in Afrin. This shows they have at least one full-length M16A2 rifle, but this time with an optic attached. This rifle has greater velocity and accuracy at close range, especially given the magnified optic. It is however heavier and less portable. It may be used as an improvised designated marksman rifle, if the group lacks arms explicitly for that purpose. The scope, however, looks inexpensive and is probably of questionable quality, so the rifle's effectiveness in that role may be doubtful.
Both the M16A4 and M16A2 have seen wide use in the Middle East, from huge quantities supplied to the Iraqi Armed Forces by the United States, as well as supply to Syrian rebels, Kurdish forces, and others. It is hence difficult to determine the exact origins of these rifles.
This TİKKO cell does not always stick with NATO-origin weapons though. Another favoured weapon is the 5.45mm AK-74. This modernisation of the original AK design is much rarer to see in the Middle East than its older predecessors, but the advent of the Syrian Civil War has lead to an influx of variants of the AK-74, from the early original version right up to the AK-74M.
The rifle you see above is an original AK-74. It's one of the rarely seen first pattern examples, dating back to around January 1977. Although up to 950,000 of these first pattern rifles were produced, it's very unusual to see them in Syria. It's also been customised with a Romanian-style side folding stock, in an effort to make the rifle more compact and more suited to guerrilla warfare.
This rifle is very interesting considering the wider picture of HRE/YPG small arms in the Afrin area- a set of two identical rifles was captured from YPG-aligned forces by the TFSA's Sham Legion in August 2018.
Initially I identified these rifles as Romanian Md. 86 AK-74s, as the stock is of romanian style, but it seems more likely that these rifles are actually standardised first pattern AK-74s. This suggests standardised supply from outside forces or a level of standard weapons modification within HRE-aligned forces, such as TİKKO. (An excellent article regarding HRE attacks in Afrin can be found on Bellingcat)
Another compact AK-74 version in use by TİKKO in Afrin is the AKS-74U (seen above). This iconic carbine, favoured by almost every faction in Syria, from Shahiba enforcers to the Islamist militants of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, has appeared many times in Syria since the uprising started, in particular since Russia began to supply the regime in earnest with all manner of arms.
Given the usual tendency of weapons given to forces allied to Bashar al-Assad to begin circulating in larger black markets, as well as other supplies into the region (Hezbollah, in particular, also uses the carbine), it’s no wonder this submachine gun sized weapon has appeared in the hands of TİKKO fighters. It's light, fires an assault rifle sized cartridge, and is very easily concealable. It's ideal for close range combat where large volumes of fire are needed at short notice. Given the likely regime sourcing of the 9K111 ATGMs used in Afrin in high numbers, it's entirely possible that this AKS-74U (Serial: 9662) was supplied via similar channels.
Here we can see a 9x19mm Sa 25 (vz. 48b), a Czechoslovak early Cold War submachine gun. Thousands of these are in the region, and again can be seen in use by all factions of the war. Though it's unknown exactly how many the regime purchased, it appears that massive stockpiles were captured by rebels in 2011 - 2013. This reliable SMG typically uses a 32 round magazine, as can be seen in the image above. It’s also ideal for close combat, much like the AKS-74U.
The Marxist fighters also have sidearms, either for last ditch defence or for very close range use. A number of videos have emerged of Wrath of Olives and other factions' using suppressed handguns, although none of the handguns below are suppressed.
Almost all the small arms we see above are based around one focus: suitability for close-range urban combat. If the TİKKO cell really is taking part in attacks within Afrin city, it's no surprise they have these weapons with them.
Given that TFSA forces have control of the area for now, any attacks against them are typically covert and fast, with many taking place at night. This is why the thermal optic is ideal for the TİKKO guerrillas. And although ammunition for 5.45mm and 5.56mm firearms may be more expensive than the common 7.62x39mm, it's certainly possible that the TİKKO forces are utilising caches pre-dating the takeover of Afrin also. All of the ammunition and the guns seen above are widely available on the Syrian black markets too.
It is hard to determine weapon sourcing from these images, yet the level of standardised weapon modification is perhaps unusal and unexpected, in an area where the AKM or Type 56 is by far the most popular rifle, usually completely modified. It is also notable to see the continuing use of thermal optics by non-state forces, a trend that currently shows no signs of ending.
Author's Note: This post is an expansion & update of one previously released on popularfront.co, with changes and expansion for a different audience.