WASHINGTON – The Syrian government’s shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and launchers could imperil civil aviation if they fall into the hands of terrorist groups, according to an independent report examining the global proliferation of portable missiles.
The report released Friday by the Federation of American Scientists, a prominent Washington group that focuses on issues of science and security, warns that some opposition factions inside Syria are already wielding small numbers of anti-aircraft systems in combat against Syrian government forces. Citing video and photo evidence from opposition forces, media and official accounts, the FAS study says some portable launchers and missiles have been seized by opposition forces during battles with Syrian troops, while others have been smuggled in to rebel fighters from neighboring countries.
The 88-page report warns about man-portable air-defense systems, also known as MANPADS, in the arsenal of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. U.S. officials have estimated the Syrian government has as many as 20,000 MANPADS, compact missile launchers with the range and explosive power to attack low-flying planes and helicopters.
It remains unclear how many similar weapons might have been smuggled into Syria by rebels and sympathizers to fight Assad.
Syria’s anti-aircraft missile inventory is comparable in size to that amassed by Libyan forces before the 2011 ouster of Moammar Gadhafi. The FAS study cites the widespread looting of anti-aircraft weapons that occurred after Gadhafi’s fall and the mass ransacking of Iraqi weapons depots after the U.S. invasion in 2003 as evidence that Syria’s missiles are equally vulnerable. The report said it was unclear whether any have been smuggled out of Libya.
“Should Syria go the way of Libya and Iraq, the international community could be confronted with the loss of government control over thousands of additional MANPADS, some of which are significantly more sophisticated than most of the MANPADS looted from depots in Libya,” wrote the study’s author, Matthew Schroeder, director of the FAS’ Arms Sales Monitoring Project.Portable anti-aircraft missiles have most often been used by nongovernment forces in conflict zones such as Iraq, where U.S. aircraft were targeted and sometimes struck by militants. Civilian passenger flights have never been threatened by shoulder-fired missiles in the U.S., but there have been nearly a dozen lethal strikes over the past decade in Asia and Africa. The FAS report said the terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia used an SA-18 missile to shoot down a Belarusian cargo aircraft departing from Mogadishu in 2007.
Both militant and moderate opposition forces have repeatedly urged Western and Mideast nations to supply them with portable anti-aircraft systems capable of downing Syrian aircraft used in bombing runs at rebel and civilian targets. But the U.S. has so far balked at providing missiles, worried that some could end up with terrorist groups.
Verifying the authenticity of videos and photos depicting the missiles in Syria has been difficult because of battlefield conditions and the propaganda uses and blurred history and identities of those who post the material online. But Schroeder said that a “broad array of sources,” which include media eyewitness accounts of the use of missiles, point to the availability and occasional use of anti-aircraft weapons in Syria.
Many of the portable launchers displayed by Syrian rebel groups on the Internet, Schroeder said, appear to be decades-old models such as Russian-made SA-7s — similar to ones found in Libya after Gadhafi’s ouster. Such older weapons have sometimes been unreliable in combat because of age and corrosion.
Unlike Libya, Syria’s military has a larger supply of newer and longer-range models supplied from Russia, Schroeder said, and as a result, Syrian rebels also appear to have seized some new-model Russian missile launchers.
Schroeder also cited an amateur video from YouTube showing a Syrian rebel downing a government helicopter with a missile fired from a Chinese-made FN-6 portable launcher near Aleppo last February. The video showed a grayish contrail streaking toward a helicopter that burst into flames. The video appeared to be authentic and corresponded to other reporting. Hart Uhl, a spokesman for the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, a Washington-based Syrian opposition organization, said the video appeared to have been posted by the Military Council of Aleppo, a rebel faction.
Schroeder noted that Syria is not known to have Chinese missiles, making it likely that the weapon was smuggled in from outside Syria. The attack occurred just a month after U.S. and Yemeni authorities intercepted a dhow, a boat often used for smuggling, near the coast of Yemen carrying 10 missiles for another Chinese-made portable anti-aircraft system, he said.
State Department weapons policy officials have begun planning to recover and dispose of the Syrian military’s missiles, said a State Department official who was not authorized to talk publicly about the planning and spoke on condition of anonymity. The official would not discuss details of the plans, but despite similar efforts after Gadhafi’s fall, the U.S. was unable to prevent widespread looting of the weapons.
State Department officials said in 2012 that only 5,000 of Libya’s 20,000 missiles were recovered and disposed of by U.S. weapons experts and private contractors — an acknowledgement that many more were either destroyed in combat or ended up in the hands of militias and armed factions.