Load bearing equipment, or LBE, is one of the most important components of a proper combat load-out. Load bearing equipment allows soldiers to carry extra magazines, grenades, medical gear, and sustainment materials such as food and water. Like every piece of military equipment, the LBE takes many forms (chest rigs, vests, battle belts, webbing systems, the list goes on). In Syria’s Idlib Province, we can see this variety in its full force on local opposition gear markets, with everything from $5 Chinese-made chest rigs to brand-new $200 Russian-made vests.
While there is an almost infinite variety of LBE styles in Idlib, one design stands out. Hailing from Russia, this LBE is known to its western users as a Smersh, and was designed and produced to this day by SSO (a large Russian military equipment manufacturer). Original and copied LBEs listed on Idlibi equipment markets are known by many names, but the design remains more or less the same. Presumably introduced by foreign fighters from the Northern Caucasus, who used them in combat (and saw their use by Russian forces) during the later stages of the 2nd Chechen War, this LBE has been viciously reproduced and copied into an infinity of variations.
The Smersh is a quite classic design in essence. Based on prior LBE designs such as the US ALICE webbing, as well as British PLCE webbing, it consists of a belt used to mount various pouches, suspenders attached to said belt to keep the belt at a proper height, and in the case of newer generation models, a small backpack. There are many variations of the Smersh within its history, but the base design has never changed fundamentally.
One could ask “if the Smersh was based on existing LBE designs, how do you know that Idlibis are inspired by the Smersh rather than something like British PLCE webbing?” As usual, the answer lies in the listings. While there are almost infinite Smersh-style rigs shown in various propaganda videos, combat footage montages, and images released from the various Syrian fronts, we will be examining Telegram marketplaces to find our source material. On most of these marketplaces you’ll see LBEs of this style listed almost exclusively as “Russian”. Of course, none of them are actually Russian, or real Smershs, but the influence is very evident. Let’s take a look at some of these rigs for sale.
This LBE, listed for $45, is a very clear Smersh derivative. The pouches are almost 1-1 recreated, albeit out of different material. It features the same lumbar pad design, coloration pattern, and backpack similar to that of the new-gen SSO design.
This rig, designed to carry PKM belt boxes, was not listed with a price. It features MOLLE webbing on the back panel, as well as three pouches for two 100-round boxes, and one 200-round box. Craftsmanship appears to be decent, although the fabric does appear quite cheap.
This Smersh copy features knockoff Kryptek Highlander fabric and MOLLE webbing on most of the rig. Craftsmanship and fabric both appear quite poor, price unknown.
This rig is a quite interesting case. Listed for $135, it’s a pricey piece. It looks very similar to an old-gen Smersh, except for a few things. Looking at the back of the shoulder harness, the design is lopsided. While it is possible that this appearance is due to how the rig is adjusted, it’s evident in the first image that it is properly adjusted. In addition to that, the white stitching on the mag pouches is not seen on any real SSO variant found so far. It is reasonable to believe that this is just another copy, albeit more faithful to the original design, leading to the increase in price.
While not necessarily a Smersh derivative, this is too interesting not to include. This is a real imported Russian Splav M32 “Tarzan” LBE. Listed for $110, this is a testament to the idea that while uncommon, legit (and brand-new) Russian gear does pop up from time to time in Idlib.
Another real Russian piece. Listed for the high price of $265, this new-gen Multicam SSO Smersh (tags even included in the listing, which is quite convenient). This is quite rare, and as of date one of the few real new-gen Smershs that found for sale in Idlibi markets.
This is a well-worn new-gen Smersh listed for $165 as a real SSO rig. It does appear to be real based on craftsmanship as well as the visible tag, which matches up with current SSO listings. Compared to the Multicam Smersh above, this is quite a good deal.
This rig, listed for $19, appears to be of quite low quality, which is reflected in its price. It features a MOLLE belt system, and comes with magazine pouches and one general purpose pouch.
This Smersh copy is fairly faithfully recreated, and was listed for $40. It is patterned after the old-gen design, and appears to have decent craftsmanship for the price.
Listed for $10, this rig has a new-gen style backpack, and was made in a commercial copy of the current Turkish Armed Forces camouflage pattern. Lumbar pad appears to be designed similarly to original SSO pieces.
This rig, listed for $25, follows the old-gen pattern and features a radio pouch sewn in to the shoulder strap. Craftsmanship appears quite poor.
This copy, listed for $35, replaces the traditional butt pack of the old-gen Smersh with a more modern backpack style, which appears to be sown into the belt.
This rig, listed for $10, features a knockoff Kryptek Highlander camouflage pattern, and appears to primarily just hold magazines.
Listed for $10, this new-gen patterned rig is made out of a unknown camouflage fabric that on first glance appears similar to Multicam Black.
Featuring a quite odd zipper pouch above the beltline, this $11 rig appears to be designed to primarily carry magazines.
This $45 rig appears to follow the old-gen pattern and seems to be of slightly higher quality than many copies.
Following the new-gen pattern, as well as fairly faithfully reproducing the proper coloration, this rig was listed for $25.
Price unknown, this is a very good copy of a new-gen Smersh in what appears to be a commercial replica of Turkish Gendarmerie camouflage.
This real new-gen SSO Smersh was listed for $210. While still rare, it is evident by the price and somewhat surprising frequency that real SSO rigs can be found if you have enough money.
This is a particularly interesting case. This Danish M96 webbing set was listed for $120 as Russian, and made note of the fabric being “original Russian”. This of course is not true, as this rig has its origins in Denmark. This could either be a case of the seller calling any belt/suspender based LBE Russian, or the seller got the Danish M/84 camouflage confused with its Russian copy, known as Tochka-4. The former is more likely, and “original Russian” fabric probably refers more to the quality of fabric rather than its pattern.
The enduring influence of the Smersh in Idlib is fascinating. The examples shown in this article only scratch the surface, with many more examples seen in combat footage, propaganda releases, and battlefield captures. It is evident through this analysis that fighters from the Northern Caucasus have had an influence on the popular equipment used by fighters, an effect touched upon in my earlier article about the gorka suit in Idlib. As the tactical gear industry evolves, and as new fighters come in and out of Idlib, it will be interesting to see how these local trends change.