Anti-aircraft missiles could be a game-changer in Syria
On 1 August, Syrian rebels shot down a Russian armoured assault helicopter in Idlib which was returning from neighbouring Aleppo, where Russian and Syrian regime aircraft have been waging a merciless aerial massacre.
The ongoing slaughter in Aleppo, Idlib, Daraya and elsewhere highlights the rebels' dire need for anti-aircraft weaponry. However, the United States has vigorously enforced an embargo against the rebels receiving these crucial weapons throughout the war.
While rebel downings of air-war vehicles have thus been few and far between, this latest hit followed the downing of some half a dozen warplanes or helicopters around Damascus in June and July.
A handful of Russian-made SA-8 anti-aircraft missiles which were used in these hits, were captured by the rebels from the regime back in 2012. Indeed, most weaponry in the hands of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been gained by capture or made in back-yards. As one article puts it: "Syria's 'Western-Backed' Rebels? Not in Weapons".
The routine use of the adjective "US-backed" for non-jihadist rebels - a grossly Orwellian piece of media-speak - greatly obfuscates the real US connection to the indigenous mass uprising against the Assad dictatorship.
By mid-2012, a flow of weapons from former Libyan rebels began to reach Syrian rebels via Turkey. Later that year the US began its first major intervention in Syria, positioning CIA agents in Turkey to restrict the quality, quantity and destination of these arms.
While warplanes and helicopters had replaced tanks as the main form of regime slaughter by mid-2012, this US embargo blocked not only anti-aircraft but also anti-tank weaponry. Thus only small arms and ammunition were allowed, in the face of a massively armed regime continually supplied by Russia and Iran.
|Only small arms and ammunition were allowed, in the face of a massively armed regime continually supplied by Russia and Iran|
Such weapons were barely enough for survival, but this was no oversight; despite calling on Assad to "step down", the US government made clear that the aim was precisely to bolster the regime as a whole. Therefore, these arms were not of the quality necessary to enhance tactical rebel victories on the ground, or even to allow a permanent balance with the regime.
Simply surviving became the aim: Western policy-makers knew if the rebels were totally crushed, this would bolster Sunni jihadist forces as the only opposition to which the dispossessed Sunni majority could gravitate; whereas if they were weakened, the moderate opposition leaderships could be pressured into accepting a role within a "reformed" regime, which would then wage war on the jihadists - and anyone else still resisting.
This "Yemeni solution" has been US policy all along, from Geneva I and II through the current round in close cooperation with Russia. In its latest edition, even Assad himself could remain as head of a "transitional" government.
Thus while the US itself restricted its own support to non-lethal aid, the only arms it would allow regional states to send the rebels, were those of the quality they already had. This could allow the US to attempt to contain and co-opt the uprising, while leading to no "danger" of strengthening them.
|Despite calling on Assad to "step down," the US government made clear that the aim was precisely to bolster the regime as a whole|
When the US did start supplying some "vetted" rebels with light arms in late 2013, the fact that the aim was survival plus co-optation is exemplified by reports of rebels getting supplied 16 bullets a month. As for the CIA training program that went with this, rebels who already knew how to fight often felt the main American interest was surveillance.
Why then did the US lift its embargo on anti-tank weapons in 2014? Of course, to do this two years after tanks had been superseded by aircraft as the main killer was far too late; nevertheless, ground warfare still plays a crucially important role.
The first reports of advanced US-made anti-tank guided missiles (known as TOW) supplied to the FSA group Harakat Hazm emerged in April 2014. They were mainly supplied by Saudi Arabia from its stocks, but it is believed that the Saudis need US permission to supply US weapons, though this may often be a tussle between the two.
US pressure is clear: Only "vetted" groups get TOW missiles, sometimes only three or four at a time, they have to apply for them for specific operations, and they have to return the shells to make a claim for more. Even favoured groups soon found supplies dwindling, and the program diminished by late 2014.
However, after Russia invaded in October 2015, Saudi Arabia sent some 500 anti-tank missiles to Syria, which led to the famous "tank massacre". The furious Saudis had promised a swift response to the Russian invasion, so it is likely they would have sent these TOW missiles regardless of US permission, though the US may have given permission to remind Russia it was there. Either way it was a one-off; supplies again dwindled to nothing by late 2015.
While the TOW missiles were a significant improvement in US support, in fact the same pattern applied as with small arms. By the time the US began allowing the Saudis to send TOWs, the rebels had already acquired a large range of anti-tank missiles, which had already taken out 1800 tanks by late 2013. Nearly all were Russian or east European made, thus captured Syrian army weapons.
|Western states therefore have no means of controlling who gets these weapons|
So again, as the rebels already had them, opening an "official" supply allowed for influence for future co-optation and some US control of who gets what, while not upping the quality of rebel weaponry. In fact, the American TOW is reportedly less efficient than Russian-made Konkurs and Kornets which the rebels have captured from the regime.
This leads to the current appearance of anti-aircraft activity, which as explained did not result from any loosening of the US embargo on anti-aircraft weapons. In fact, in the last six to eight months, the US has tightened its arms embargoes on all weapons against the rebels, while more or less openly collaborating with Russia against them.
In theory, the embargo aims to prevent anti-aircraft weapons getting into the hands of terrorists who might down civilian planes. Yet such weapons exist on the black market; since the US has gone out of its way to prevent the FSA from getting any - even from there - the weapons that do get snapped up end up in the hands of anyone but the FSA.
Western states therefore have no means of controlling who gets these weapons. Most of the six southern hits are thought to have been made by the Islamist militia Jaish Islam. While not strictly speaking FSA, neither is Jaish Islam a "terrorist" group that would hit civilian aircraft.
However, IS also recently shot down a Russian warplane. Thus, US policy of blocking these arms to the FSA has not prevented the biggest terrorist organisation of them all from getting its hands on them.
Will this appearance of captured anti-aircraft weapons lead the US to ease its embargo on providing them to the FSA, in the pattern of small arms and later anti-tank weapons? The likelihood appears remote.
These weapons are simply too decisive. The fundamental US and western opposition to significant military defeats for the regime - requiring as they do weakened rebels for an Oslo-style capitulation – remains the underlying reason for the embargo on decisive weapons reaching the rebels, rather than the scarecrow of them reaching terrorists.
Michael Karadjis is an independent Australian writer and lecturer at the University of Western Sydney. He recently contributed to the volume Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution. He has written extensively on Syria and blogs at Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.