When we talk about conflicts in underdeveloped and “harsh” regions of the world, many of us think of Toyota pick-ups. With heavy weapons mounted on their backs, fighters traveling as if they were about to fall, and brake lights blown to avoid detection during nighttime deployments, Toyota pick-ups are indeed one of the default elements of conflict geographies.
There is even a war in history called the “Toyota War”. In this war, the Chadians, who came to war with Toyota pick-ups against the advanced tanks of the Libyan Army, won an unforgettable victory with the support of France. In Afghanistan, the Taliban marching on Kabul were traveling in Toyota pick-ups. In Iraq, Syria, Libya, Libya, Mali, Sudan, Nigeria, Sudan, Nigeria… And in way too many other places to mention, Toyota pick-ups have become a constant element of war. And there are even social media pages dedicated to Toyota pick-ups running from front to front.
In the dust left behind by Toyota pick-ups, there are the new heroes of the battlefield. These are motorcycles. Although it may have escaped the notice of many, careful eyes are aware that motorcycles are now a constant element of irregular warfare. The trend, which was especially rising in Syria, was taken to a different dimension with the events in Gaza on October 7. Some states had already realized this. For example, it was reflected in the news that Nigeria, which is in an armed struggle against Boko Haram, DAESH and other elements, wanted to restrict the sale of motorcycles. Nigeria had even established a Combat Motorcycle Battalion to counter the Boko Haram violence that peaked in 2016.
The Syrian Civil War is undoubtedly where motorcyclists really rose to fame, where an endless number of military techniques were repeatedly tested and perfected. The use of motorcycles during this war found its way into the mainstream press thanks to the global coverage the war received. In the early years of the war, motorcycles were one of the symbols of the young part of the opposition rebelling against Assad’s authoritarian rule.
A significant part of the opposition population came from the young and poor. They used motorcycles extensively in their daily lives, and when it came to rebelling against the regime, they used motorcycles as their daily companions. Atomized and easily mobilized, they were able to carry out surprise attacks. Or, on Syria’s bad roads, they quickly reached corners where passenger cars could not go. Perhaps it was the enthusiastic use of motorcycles by Syrian youth that gave the revolutionary effort in Syria its momentum and enthusiasm in the early years.
Mohammed R., for example, was one of several university students who led demonstrations in the Gab Plain, northwest of Hama, during the early days of Syrian protests. As the demonstrations grew bigger and the violence escalated, the Assad regime was also blocking internet access from the regime’s cell phone networks in to prevent the demonstrations from being monitored from abroad. For this reason, hundreds of GSM cards with open internet and international use were brought to the region from Turkey. Mohammed was one of those who often went to pick up GSM cards smuggled from northern Latakia.
“The cars were often stopped by the Mukhabarat on the main roads. On the way to Latakia via the Kurd Mountain, the roads were often blocked by the Shabbiha and soldiers. Motorcycles became very popular at that time. Because there were roads and paths where cars couldn’t go, but we could get there and back quickly. We used to keep satellite equipment on the back of the motorcycles for broadcasting the demonstrations. When there was an intervention, it was easy to escape. Later, when the clashes started, motorcyclists were the first to attack regime positions,” said Mohammed R., who still rides motorcycles in Syria and Idlib.
Similarly, the Syrian National Army (SNA) of the Syrian Interim Government, which controls northern Syria, has been establishing and developing motorcycle teams in recent years. Abu Hassan, one of the commanders of the SNA, stated that the deployment of motorcycle units is faster, especially within the framework of rapid response forces, and said, “Motorcycles are more useful and safer than cars on the front line. A car can be targeted with an anti-tank missile. But it is not easy to hit a motorcycle. The front lines are generally roadless terrain and cars can be slow for deployments. But the motorcycle is much faster in off-road conditions. Another advantage is that motorcycle units are more useful for maneuvers to distract the enemy.”
Motorcycles were also instrumental in the continuation of the war. Daesh was famous for its motorcycle attacks. These vehicles were used not only for hit-and-run attacks or deployments, but also for bomb attacks. Even today, the organization, which has shrunk and weakened, continues its existence with bomb attacks carried out by motorcyclists. Or the group often uses motorcycles to carry out raids in the desert region east of Homs, where it is currently carrying out attacks against the Assad regime, Russian mercenaries and Iranian-backed militants. Atomized elements on motorcycles, dispersed and moving along different routes between their living quarters in the desert and the attack points, carry out violent attacks against the Assad regime’s military deployments. The terrorist organization used the same tactic for a long-time during clashes in Egypt’s Sinai desert. Although such attacks have decreased, they still continue.
The PKK, another influential organization in Syria, also makes extensive use of motorcyclists. For example, during Turkey’s operations against the YPG/PKK presence in northern Syria, units constantly moving with RPGs and mortars harassed the Turkish army. By the time the Turkish Armed Forces, using artillery as the main firing element, responded to this fire the motorcycle had already hidden in another village. This type of rapid mobilization is also used by the YPG/PKK to evade Turkish drone strikes. Thinking that they are minimizing their targets, members of the organization use motorcycles instead of military vehicles or vehicles that are easy to identify.
This tactic used by the YPG/PKK has set an example for al-Qaeda leadership and its members, who have returned to underground activities in Northwestern Syria for several years. Motorcycles, which are easy to change with secondary roads and maneuverability, provide a temporary shield for members of both organizations as they are mostly preferred by civilians, even if they cannot permanently protect them from UCAVs.
October 7: The Cavalries of Hamas
The Hamas attacks of October 7 also made extensive use of motorcyclists. Hundreds of motorcyclists infiltrated into Israel and quickly took over Israeli outposts and Jewish settlements. The attack was so swift that it was only hours later that the Israeli army realized that many settlements had been occupied.
While the world was preoccupied with the Hamas attack and the subsequent Israeli response, an important detail of the attack – Hamas’ skillful use of motorcycles to cover long distances in the Negev Desert – went unnoticed. These motorcycle units also fulfilled some of the roles assigned to tanks. The maneuvering of the motorcycle, the RPGs on the shoulders of the Hamas elements, gave Hamas a quick advantage.
Thus, the “motorcycle doctrine” that had matured in the countryside and slums of many poor countries took on a new dimension in the hands of Hamas. Hamas motorcyclists attacked with the “swarm” mentality familiar from unmanned vehicles.
Although they have not received the attention they deserve, it is not surprising that motorcycles have a place in the new face of low-intensity, irregular conflicts. As mentioned above, these conflicts take place in places where poverty is widespread, unemployed youth are high and car ownership is low. Not surprisingly, these are also the regions where motorcycle ownership is the highest in the world.
Young people who use motorcycles in their daily lives turn to them when their lives are taken over by armed conflicts. In this respect, it would not be wrong to predict that as wars intensify in poorer countries, motorcycles will be used to a greater extent and that each geography will perfect this new “cavalry” by building on what it has learned from the other.
While Toyota pick-ups are relatively expensive and only possible with foreign aid or the intervention of a warlord, Far Eastern motorcycles have become the protagonists of conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and many other parts of the world. Without anyone noticing. Just as the Israeli forces did not notice the motorcyclists infiltrating their rear.