Michael's Dispatches

Guncotton in Syria

11 November 2013

image001Guncotton used to launch homemade artillery.

War has shattered Syria.  Heavily armed government forces will stop at nothing to destroy opposition to retain power.  The government uses airstrikes, artillery barrages, and tanks against its own people.

Assad’s army is literally scorching the earth under the feet of women and children.  If Assad’s Air Force has a single rule of engagement, the rule seems to be never to waste a bomb.  This abject cruelty has led to a brutal war that eclipses Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

While the Syrian government uses heavy weapons, many opposition fighters scramble for ammunition and to invent homemade cannons, large catapults, and giant slingshots that launch grapefruit-sized grenades.

image003Rebel lights guncotton with cigarette.

In 1845, German chemist Christian Schoenbein used cotton, water, nitric and sulfuric acids, and invented guncotton.  Schoenbein’s guncotten was meant to be a military propellant yet it was so sensitive that it was prone to kill users.

Soon, guncotton was forgotten as a cannon propellant, in part for the danger.  Today, Syrian rebels have gone back to basics, including making guncotton and their own artillery pieces and ammunition.

Earlier this year, the US government warned that al Qaeda may use clothing dipped in a liquid explosive and then dried, which is virtually undetectable by current means.  Officials did not mention the explosive.

Was it guncotton?  After all, the stuffing of a fluffy winter jacket could be replaced with guncotton, as could all the clothes in a carryon bag.  It might not be long before cotton balls and cotton diapers are considered as threatening as baby formula.  The US government uses “could” to justify global eavesdropping and other power grabs.

This video was made by a courageous 21-year-old Syrian war correspondent named Omran Morad:


Video: Omran Morad
Writing: Michael Yon
Translation to Arabic: Suhaib Ghoutani

(Note: I viewed the entire video sequence and asked an editor to cut dead space.  The small transitions are apparent.  The fuse on the closest cannon failed to light on the first try.  A transition skips the relighting of the fuse.)


+17 # RE: Guncotton in SyriaKevin 2013-11-11 18:44
I understand the desire to defend yourself from aggression and would do the same. However this revolution has been created by pumping 100's of millions of dollars in weapons and materiel into the disenfranchised . Worse yet in support AQ and Al Nusra which are the antitheses of the West. How can we have destabilized a country that was at peace and improving just to push back Iran and ease right wing Israeli fears?
I lived in Syria until mid 2011 for a total of 3.5 years and I saw it getting better for the people every year, and now its a disaster. WHy and for whom? This isn't a quest for freedom unless you count the freedom to bring Sharia to a people that have had a secular government for 40 years.
Yes the situation is more complex than I can cover here but if you are supporting AQ and Al Nusra you are on the wrong side of right. The SNC isn't credible and unless it becomes more inclusive will never be. There is no "way out" for Alawi's, them and those that stand with them will be slaughtered, it's the "Arabic" way. So there can be no negotiated settlement without a way that addresses all true Syrians not these barbarians from Libya, Chechnya, Soudi, Yemen, Etc.
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+5 # SideToaster 2013-11-11 21:53
I am quite sure that neither side in this conflict is good for the west. If you trace back the alliances and make a few calculations you would either be siding with Iran/Hezbollah( i.e. Assad as he now owes quite a few favors to Hezbollah/Iran and has alienated the Sunni world) or Sunni Jihadis/Al-Qaed a. The best outcome would be the restoration of the former status quo, which is not going to happen.

As such, the notion that the USA or Israeli is behind this civil war is utter nonsense. One who understands the region would have known that the outcome would be worse than the former situation - even knowing how awful it is to have Assad and Hezbollah as neighbors. Turkey is the only country that clearly stood to gain from toppling Assad and the Erdogan has a warm place in his heart for Sunni extremism. It stands to reason that if anyone helped get the ball rolling it was Turkey or other Sunni powers.
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+10 # Rubic's cubein_awe 2013-11-11 21:59
Trying to make sense of the Middle East is fast becoming a fool's errand.

Where the "good guys" morph into totalitarian tyrants and nearby nation's strive to destabilize neighboring countries; where freedom fighters are overtaken by jihadists and revolutionary guards.

The simple-mindedne ss that was on display in the Libyan intervention followed by covert aid via Libya to Syrian rebels through Turkey - matched by al Qaeda recruiting of Libyan fighters for the Syrian uprising. Then the doubling down on cluelessness last summer when Obama declared unilaterally the need to immediately attack Syria. WTF? Iran is providing materiel and battlefield advisers (if not brigades) in defense of Assad. Hezbollah creates more unrest in Lebanon and threatens to become a player in Syria. Who is destabilizing who? And for what end? Who ultimately gets to fire the bullets that others provide? What is the undercurrent re Israel and Palestine?

N-dimensional chess without rules.
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-13 # SimpleDaShui 2013-11-11 22:21
Too many people in too small an area, simple Maulthusian Collapse, nothing more.
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+4 # Thanks for videoJon S. 2013-11-11 22:25
Thanks for sharing that video. It was interesting and educational. You are going to and know how to survive in places that most people cannot. (like me). Thanks again for bringing us the reality. None of us like to be deceived ... but I think deep down people have a love for the truth - regardless of what that truth is. Thanks!
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+12 # Get outCrowman 2013-11-11 22:42
You are a brave reporter but that H-hole is a death trap for anyone from the West. Get out soon while you still can. Last night "20/20" featured a reporter who was held/tortures in Syria for 200+ days and managed to escape. Best wishes!!
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+12 # RE: Guncotton in SyriaJake Today 2013-11-11 23:09
All look and learn. This kind of ingenuity maybe very necessary in the U.S. against the BO dictatorship in the near future. Think about it.
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+4 # crazy nutYi 2013-11-12 03:13
Dictatorship? Good thing we have term limit for our Presidents hey? Now if only we can have term limit for the congress...
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+1 # RE: Guncotton in SyriaKathy S 2013-11-11 23:10
Many thanks again Michael. Your website has a new look? As I've told you before, your information, style etc are one of the best out there!

Having been a demi-alpha in school a gazillion years ago, I still have funny stories about this arena. One involves one of the grad students and rolls of TP in organic lab ;)

Best always,
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# Interview with Revolutionary Guard CommanderToaster 2013-11-12 00:02
For those looking for additional context here is link to a captured video of an interview with a revolutionary guard commander in Syria. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2J02DutU2c
I found it interesting.
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+12 # A letter to the Financial Times on August 22nd, 2013Eddy 2013-11-12 02:50
From Mr. KN Al Sabah
Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!
Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.
But Gulf states are pro-Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!
Iran is pro-Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!
Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!
Gulf states are pro-US. But Turkey is with Gulf sates against Assad; yet Turkey is pro-Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And general Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!
Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.
KN Al-Sabah,
London EC4, UK

PS. Michael get out of this mess. I'm sorry to say this but these people have been killing each other since millenniums. Only they know why.
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-4 # maamkathin9@aol.com 2013-11-12 08:59
Interesting your reporting Michael, while you were busy supporting the opposition, aka rebels, aka al Qaeda, butchers, Muslim Brotherhood, did you bother to take a quick stop at the mass graves with the CHRISTIAN bodies in it? You know the over 30 Christians who were killed by the "rebel" or in your book the do gooders? No tell me Michael Yon who are you there representing John McCain? Lindsey Graham Cracker? Obama? John Kerry, backstabber Hagel? TELL ME MICHAEL YON, you are the biggest disappointment of all. :eek:
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+6 # SlowlyMichael Yon author 2013-11-12 14:00
Re-read the dispatch several times, and think about it before making proclamations. Read slowly, write even more slowly.
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# shoot & skoot?RRmike 2013-11-12 09:37
Counter Battery fire might be a problem here.
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# RE: Guncotton in Syriahili 2013-11-12 09:46
Yes, it is correct that Assad is bombing his own people. BUT these fighters for freedom are very often also radical Muslims. If they rebels win there will be the next war. Normal Syrians who just want to be free against radical Muslims. And we have seen in Mali what happened. The radicals were stronger. If the radicals win, then bye bye Alawite and Christian community.
Yes Assad was ruling with an iron fist, but under his reign there was a coexistence of all religions possible.
Dear Michael Yon, open your eyes as journalist. There are always two sides in every war and you are just blind on one eye! I was PIO in the Austrian army for the International Operations Command / Center for Operations Preparation and I know how it is to report from conflict zones.
I am like Austria as country, I am neutral in this conflict but I see the support for the rebels in a very skeptical way.
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+4 # Pay attentionMichael Yon author 2013-11-12 13:58

Re-read the dispatch several times, and think about it before making proclamations. Read slowly, write even more slowly.
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-2 # Read your own sentenceshili 2013-11-12 17:32
"Assad’s army is literally scorching the earth under the feet of women and children. If Assad’s Air Force has a single rule of engagement, the rule seems to be never to waste a bomb. This abject cruelty has led to a brutal war that eclipses Iraq and Afghanistan combined."
This is your own sentence which is not very objective! Do you really think that the other side is any better and spares the life of innocent civilians? Please also go to the other side as well and bring some Dispatches from there. Go to the Christian minority and report from them as well.

I can read slowly. Yes the article is about home made guncotton. What I dont like in it is the anti Assad troops sentence.
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+8 # Have you followed Michael's dispatches for long?rjwerning 2013-11-12 14:30
Through the years Michael has been very objective in his dispatches. He writes from the front line, telling it like he sees it - good, bad or indifferent. Do not base your judgement of his journalism based off of one short article. I suspect you will have a hard time finding a more "true" view of what is happening on the ground for the time he is there.

Just my humble opinion.
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# I learnedhili 2013-11-12 17:35
that there are always two sides. And I know how media can influence stories. Being on one side and seeing just one side is not objective, When he tells what he sees, and I do like his Dispatches most of the time, then it is just one side = Means not objective.
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# RE: Guncotton in SyriaKevin 2013-11-12 20:28
Michael as others have said I always read your dispatches and often consider them the best information around. In this case I think you are seeing what one side is selling, no matter how sad and painful that is there is another side just as sad and painful. Yet the side you are helping bring to light is the same side as AQ and AN and they do not stand for freedom. The exact opposite in fact.
Here is an interesting link predicting exactly what is and will happen. Sadly this was my same prediction while living there as this thing began to unravel.
There is also a reference to this letter in the Wiki entry.
Lastly I would say this. I would use Canada as an example as I am Canadian. I believe that if other nations spent 500 million to galvanize the First Nations of Canada such as the Mohawks and others we would have a civil war in Canada as well. Think about that for a second…. a stable country turned upside down by pumping huge sums of money and weapons into the disenfranchised … sounds like Syria to me. I was there.
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+10 # Eyes wide openMichael Yon author 2013-11-12 20:34

I am one of the last people on earth who needs to be reminded of this. I would also submit that the farther people get away from a war, the more they think they know about it.

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+1 # RE: Guncotton in SyriaKevin 2013-11-12 20:48
Fair enough Michael, although any moment spent in "any" place is just that a snap shot. Yours has lasted a few weeks? I lived there for 3.5 years and travelled extensively. Dealt with Bedouin hostage takings and lived both in the field and in main city centres including Damascus.
Those of us that frequent your page trust your motives and what you say or we wouldn't be here. But that doesn't mean we take you for an Oracle either. And being challenged is bound to happen when there is a forum and we all aren't sitting on a couch in North America like armchair quarter backs. So, you're there, or close enough, so how about lets see some balance on the topic?
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+10 # CannonMichael Yon author 2013-11-12 20:55

This tiny dispatch was about improvised cannons. If you know much about improvised munitions -- and I know quite a lot -- you do not need to be here a decade to write a few words about guncotton. Did you recognize the guncotton when you saw it? I recognized it in about a second and was interested that they are using it.

Did I write a single untrue word in this dispatch? This was about cannons, not about many sides ripping each other from limb to limb. Trust me, I do not need the briefing or the lecture about atrocities. Been there, seen that so many times that I cannot recall.
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+3 # RE: Guncotton in SyriaKevin 2013-11-12 21:38
No I did not. Although I recognized the name and a little history. Props to them for ingenuity.
My intent was not to make you defensive. I expect a balanced piece from you because of what you've done previously. Having lived there and being close to many on both sides of this I get fired up by comments that make the Syrian army out to be the only bad guys or the bad guys. There is enough propaganda about freedom fighters and other bullshit from cnn and BBC every day that I'm tired of.
Is what you said untrue? No but it wouldn't be untrue of any conflict. As a recent interview with Syrian army soldiers in Damascus pointe out when asked why he doesn't allow food into rebel areas when women and children are starving. His answer because the rebels will use it to feed themselves and that could lead to one of his men dying instead.
Obviously by some of the responses here, some of us have reacted to the same paragraph painting the army as the sole purveyors of atrocities.
The area as you no doubt know is complex beyond a library's worth of books to describe. Maybe you're having a bad day, or pissed off at being questioned by people you don't know. I don't know, but if you put your opinion out there it's open to criticism and more so when you also are asking for support from the public to carry out that mission. I don't think it's unfair to have that dialogue but there you go.
Now it's bed time in Angola and I look forward to the next dispatch. I appreciate the time you took to reply.
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+8 # RegardlessJon S. 2013-11-13 01:27
Irrelevant if the side is the bad guys or the really bad guys, scorching earth under women and children is bad bad bad... and I want to know about these things. So keep up the good job Mr. Yon!
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