The Wall Street Journal has a superb piece of reporting, posted last night, about what’s now undeniable: The Syrian rebels now have access to a significant amount of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, some supplied from Libya. Some key parts from the story:
“Northern Syria is awash with advanced antitank and antiaircraft weapons. The situation has changed very quickly,” a Syrian involved in coordinating weapons procurement with regional states said. The Manpad transfers weren’t sanctioned by the regional states that have armed and financed Syria’s rebels since early this year, he added. On Wednesday, fighters said they downed a military helicopter in the town of Maarat al-Nouman, in the northern Idlib province, one of at least four helicopters and jets they say they have brought down across Syria this week.
This is interesting:
U.S. officials oppose the introduction of such weapons in Syria, citing long-standing fears that they could wind up in the hands of anti-Western militias that could eventually use them against the U.S. and its allies, or sell them to terrorists. “Obviously, we are concerned about the proliferation of Manpads,” said a U.S. official.
The rebels in Aleppo who are depicted in the footage uploaded to the Internet this week are identified as members of the al-Salam and Hamza battalions, two of the relatively unknown divisions in a mushrooming insurgency. Rebels with the two largest fighting factions in Aleppo couldn’t identify the battalions in the videos, though they confirmed that Manpads acquired over the past two weeks had made their way into the city.
Given the growing evidence that the most effective fighting forces in Syria are jihadist groups with which the trying-to-look-moderate rebel leadership doesn’t want to associate, “the relatively unknown divisions” mentioned above as being equipped with these missiles might well be extremist, jihadist, and possibly foreign groups. The groups that rebel leadership in Aleppo “can’t identify” might be groups they don’t want to identify, lest the explanation confirm the worst fears of their Western and Gulf supporters. It would be no surprise if al-Qaeda-linked groups like the al Nusra Front been more active in trying to acquire MANPADs by any means possible; they are more likely to know how to handle the weapons, and they’re free from any consequences of acquiring and using the missiles since the state allies of the rebels who are unhappy with this proliferation already are trying not to aid the jihadist groups.
Even knowing the usefulness to the cause the states aiding the rebels do claim to be making efforts to keep these weapons out of any rebel group’s hands, but it’s been less than a brick wall:
For rebels locked in a three-month battle with regime forces in Aleppo, airstrikes have been the major setback. Syria’s regime forces had relatively free passage in the skies until this summer, and helicopter gunship attacks on rebel positions continue to be common. Antiaircraft weapons have the potential to give the rebels a decisive boost against regime air power, just as they did for fighters in Afghanistan who defeated the Soviet Union’s occupying army there in the 1980s. It could force the Syrian air force to work from higher altitudes, with implications for collateral casualties.
“Bashar al-Assad has gone further in violence by using MiG jets and now drops barrels filled with TNT,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Wednesday ahead of a meeting with Syrian opposition representatives in Paris. “The strikes are less accurate, since there are now weapons forcing them to fly higher.”
Most of the shoulder-fired missiles in rebel arsenals have come from Libya, smuggled into the country through the Turkish border without the official blessing of regional states or their Western backers, several rebel coordinators said.
Other shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, which these rebels identified as Russian-made Strela systems, have been supplied by militant Palestinian factions now supporting the Syrian uprising and smuggled in through the Lebanese border, they said. Syrian military defectors also say they have been able to buy some SA-7′s—a Russian-designed Manpad—from regime forces since the summer.
Lebanon’s government has said it cracked down on smuggling through its borders, which rebels concede have been sealed to weapons transfers for months, making the recent deliveries a rarity. Turkey has repeatedly denied any involvement in supplying or facilitating weapons transfers to rebels in Syria.
Though rebels say the systems had started arriving in the summer, it remains unclear exactly how many have reached Syria. U.S. officials say probably no more than a handful have slipped through over the past few months. U.S. officials say they are most worried about Russian-designed Manpads provided to Libya making their way to Syria. The U.S. intensified efforts to track and collect man-portable missiles after the 2011 fall of the country’s longtime strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi.
I assume this is one of the videos referenced, dated October 17, showing the explosion of what looks like an Mi-8 helicopter, to jubilant shouts of “Allahu Akbar!”: