American Scientists Warn Against Loose Missiles in Syria

October 12, 2013  

The Syrian government’s shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and launchers could imperil civil aviation if they fall into the hands of terror groups, an independent report examining the global proliferation of portable missiles says.

The report released Friday by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and reported on by the Associated Press, 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.

FAS is a prominent Washington group that focuses on issues of science and security.

The 88-page report warns about man-portable air-defense systems, also known as MANPADS, in the arsenal of Syrian President Bashar Al-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 is 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 Muammar Qaddafi. The FAS study cites the widespread looting of anti-aircraft weapons that occurred after Qaddafi’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.

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. The U.S. has so far balked at providing missiles, worried that some could end up with terrorist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front which has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

Verifying the authenticity of videos and photos depicting the missiles in Syria has been difficult, 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 Qaddafi’s ouster.

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.

The report was released the same day that Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that groups of Syrian rebel forces executed at least 190 civilians and seized over 200 as hostages during a military offensive on August 4.

According to the report, a majority of the massacres took place in the city of Latakia, predominantly inhabited by members of Bashar Al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect.

Al-Nusra and other jihadist rebel groups vowed revenge strikes against villages from the Alawite community over a chemical weapons attack in Damascus on August 21.

Members of Al-Nusra and other rebel groups have committed atrocities during the Syrian civil war, including publicly beheading a Catholic priest who was accused of collaborating with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.

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