News / Middle East

    Advanced Weapons May Reach Syrian Rebels Despite US Concerns

    FILE - An Afghan guerrilla handles a U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missile in this photo made between November 1987 and January 1988.
    FILE - An Afghan guerrilla handles a U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missile in this photo made between November 1987 and January 1988.

    It may be just a matter of time before Russia’s continuing air assault on Syrian rebels persuades some of those backing rebel groups to even the fight by providing shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles.
     
    The U.S. has consistently rejected proposals to provide the advanced weaponry, also known as MANPADs, to rebel groups, citing the damage they could do in the wrong hands and the fear that providing such weapons could draw Washington and its allies into an even more direct proxy war with Moscow. But officials fear that, at some point, U.S. allies may decide it is worth the risk.
     
    “If there’s a perceived threat, there’ll be some sort of counter action,” a U.S. official told VOA on condition of anonymity, adding there is no evidence yet that any rebel groups are being supplied with MANPADs.
     
    Syrian rebel groups have been desperate to get their hands on the advanced weaponry for years, first to counter the Syrian regime’s warplanes and more recently to fight back against the Russian bombing campaign. In 2013, some MANPADS did appear on the battlefield and Qatar was widely believed to have been the supplier, although this was denied by Doha.

    Russian Su-25 jets takes off for a mission from Hemeimeem airbase in Syria, October 22, 2015.
    Russian Su-25 jets takes off for a mission from Hemeimeem airbase in Syria, October 22, 2015.


     
    There have even been persistent rumors about some Chinese made MANPADs reaching Syria via the black market, although military and intelligence officials have said there are no signs of any widespread use.
     
    Still, U.S. officials remain concerned. For the Syrian rebels, MANPADS would take away the one clear military advantage the Syrian government has over them — warplanes.
     
    "Rumors of the impending provision of MANPADS to Syrian opposition forces reflect a desire to blunt the Russian actions by both opposition elements and some of their supporters,” according to a U.S. intelligence official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
     
    “Such speculation further shows Putin’s actions are only making a bad situation worse,” the official added, calling an influx of MANPADs into an area with so many terrorist groups “beyond dangerous.”
     
    There also are concerns about whether even vetted rebel groups could use them effectively.
     
    “The difficulty is in confirming a target,” a U.S. official said. “Do they know if they’re engaging a Russian aircraft?”

    Several rebel commanders admitted to VOA that they have been on the black market trying to secure MANPADS with funds provided by wealthy Syrian expatriates. Asked if Fastaqim Kama Umirt, a brigade aligned to the rebel alliance Jaish al-Mujahideen (Army of Holy Warriors), has been trying to get anti-aircraft missiles, Zakaria Malahefji, a spokesman for the militia, nodded his assent, saying, “Sure.”

    He said they met military officials last Thursday at the Turkey-based Military Operations Center staffed by Arab and Western intelligence personnel, including CIA officials, and, as well as requesting TOW anti-tank missiles, pressed the importance for the rebels of MANPADS, but it was made clear none would be forthcoming.

    FILE - A Free Syrian Army fighter sits at a checkpoint as a man rides a bicycle past the rubble of a damaged building in the old city of Aleppo, Syria, July 13, 2015.
    FILE - A Free Syrian Army fighter sits at a checkpoint as a man rides a bicycle past the rubble of a damaged building in the old city of Aleppo, Syria, July 13, 2015.

    Abdul Rahman, a commander with the Ahfad Omer battalion, part of the larger First Brigade, a U.S. backed secular militia, said they had made several attempts to buy MANPADS and recently had been negotiating with a mafia group in Turkey, but they realized they were being set up for fraud. “We understood that they didn’t have access to the weapons they claimed,” he explained.

    He said he has hopes that Saudi Arabia and Qatar may tire with the U.S. ban on supplying MANPADS and break coalition ranks, but that the Gulf countries are not ready to flaunt the Americans. “No one will give us any, we are really suffering because of this.” He added: “We are trying all kinds of ways to get them, including from the mafia, on the black market, anything we can think of to get some.  Whatever money they want, we can give them.”

    And they have cast far afield to net a supply of the missiles, including approaching Pakistani authorities. “They told us they would consider the request, but we have heard nothing,” he said. They are taking the non-response as meaning no. Some militias also have tried to recruit engineers from overseas to help them rig their own anti-aircraft missiles from old, non-functioning shoulder fired ones they seized in the past from Syrian government armories, but so far have failed to find any engineers willing to travel to war-torn Syria.

    Earlier this month, General Salim Idris,a  top rebel commander, told VOA that shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles would prove a major game changer on the battlefield, and that he had tried many times in the past four years to persuade the West and Gulf countries to supply them, but they feared the missiles would fall into jihadist hands. He has been pressing for them again since the Russian air campaign, but holds out no hope the coalition will rethink its position.

    One rebel commander noted that even if they do manage to secure some supplies on the black market, they will face the big challenge of getting them across the border. “How do we get them past the Turks?” he mused aloud.


    Jeff Seldin

    Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

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    Comments page of 2
        Next 
    by: Jim Mooney from: Arizona
    October 28, 2015 9:52 PM
    “How do we get them past the Turks?” Turkey? Come on. Turkey has been supplying ISIS, while they bomb the brave Kurds, the only fighting force that can stand up to ISIS. Hundreds of trucks go across the Turkish border into ISIS territory and I don't think they're carrying ice cream and diapers. ISIS fighters get R&R and resupply in Turkey. Another one of our great "allys" like the Dark Age Terror Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    October 27, 2015 12:24 PM
    It would be an amazing irony if Russian fighter jets were shot down with Russian manufactured MANPADS smuggled out of Russia by Chechen rebels. If IS acquires them, the US will have to deploy its most advanced stealth aircraft to avoid being shot down. This after all is why they've been developed. This would be an excellent opportunity to put the X-47B drone in service to see how well it does in combat. The day of the manned military combat aircraft should come to an end for the US. Our machines against their humans. It's no contest.
    In Response

    by: Igor from: Russia
    October 27, 2015 9:37 PM
    You are right. If the US provide the terrorists with MANPADS to counter Russian airfighters, Russia will use guided missiles from our warships to blow them up. I think the US should provide the terrorists some destroyers to counter russian warships. But I do not think the terrorists have the capability to handle those destroyers so they would end up hand them over to the ISIS.
    I think there is one way to destroy all ISIS: Using Iskander system with tactical nuclear warhead to turn them all to dust.

    by: real concern
    October 27, 2015 12:00 PM
    If America must never supply MANPADs to terrorists and jihadists in Syria. Because, terrorists will not hesitate to use the same against American aircrafts. America created Osama to fight Soviet Union. But, Osama ended up fighting America. So, Supporting any rebel group will not help America in anyway. There is a high chance that so called rebel groups may turn into terrorist groups in future. funding and arming groups of angry people is not the way to fight terrorism. So, let us stay away and mind our own business.

    by: Valid question
    October 27, 2015 11:03 AM
    America which started to fight terrorists after 9/11 has finally ended up supporting the same in Syria. Now, Western media has deliberately started to call terrorists and jihadists as rebels, insurgents. What a pity! America which started to fight for democracy has now ended up supporting Saudi dictators, jihadists fighters in Syria. Downfall of assad will not bring democracy to Syria.

    Terrorists are fighting Assad to turn Syria into a terrorists safe haven. America did a terrible mistake supporting terrorists in Afghanistan against Soviet union. Because, same terrorists supported by America in the past is fighting America now. But, again America is doing the same mistake. instead of fighting terrorism, America has started to use terrorists to fulfill her geopolitical objectives in Syria.

    look at who are supplying weapons to terrorists, so called American allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are sending weapons to terrorists. look at what weapons terrorists have, They are all American made. is America really fighting terrorists?

    by: Negusse
    October 27, 2015 10:56 AM
    Everybody is testing his high tech weapons on both the innocent and the terrorists. Destroying both the evil and the good.Nobody is trying to coordinate to reach the same goal in fighting their common enemy.

    by: Igor from: Russia
    October 27, 2015 5:23 AM
    Russia has its own right to attack any country providing terrorists with anti-aircraft missiles and so Israel does because those weapons will be use to down Israeli air fighters as well.

    by: Anonymous
    October 27, 2015 3:06 AM
    Almost everyone knows by now that Qatar/Saudi Arabia and Turkey = ISIS

    Whatever weapon that these countries buy end up in the hands of ISIS and AQ Groups.

    by: C L Who from: USA
    October 27, 2015 1:41 AM
    Only Russian bombing, and not US bombing, causes speculation about the mercenaries being supplied with surface to air missiles.

    Interesting.

    by: American Eskimo from: San Jose, USA
    October 27, 2015 12:35 AM
    MANPADS were included in the 50 tons weapons airdrop. All this talk about that the terrorists are trying to acquire anti-aircraft missiles are propaganda technique to protect USA when the rebels do shot down Russian warplanes. USA provided the Taliban such weapons in Afghanistan.

    by: Anonymous
    October 26, 2015 10:45 PM
    Perhaps some of those Russian aircraft could be at risk? and make it a real game changer.
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