Just as the clamour for supplying the Syrian opposition with sophisticated new weapons looked to be reaching a tipping point in the Gulf and the west, the rebels have clearly got hold of some arms of their own.
A video of a government gunship being brought down by a missile outside Aleppo, a first for the rebels, emerged at the same time as European diplomats agreed to change the terms of the EU arms embargo on Syria. From Saturday, it will be rolled over for only three months, signalling to President Bashar al-Assad that weapons deliveries to the rebels could start at short notice if the aerial bombardment of rebel-held areas continues.
“This sends a strong message to the regime that all options remain on the table and makes clear the need for real change. The regime’s indiscriminate use of violence against their people will not be ignored,” a Foreign Office spokesman said.
The warning came as the rebels’ principal backers, in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been chafing ever more loudly against the US veto on supplies of sophisticated, potentially decisive weapons such as shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (widely known as Manpads – an acronym for man-portable air-defence systems) to the rebels.
The US veto was motivated principally by the fear of such a weapon falling into the hands of a jihadist group that would then use it to bring down a civilian airliner, as al-Qaida tried to do with an Israeli plane in Mombasa in December 2002. Some in the Gulf states have argued that there are precautions that could be taken against such proliferation. But until now, they have stuck by the ban.
“We did this as a favour to Obama,” a Gulf source said. “But now Obama has been re-elected, there is a question of whether we should still be bound by such an undertaking.” Shoulder-launched missiles could be bought in Pakistan or in Africa, the source added.
So far, there is no evidence that any of the ground-to-air missiles used to date have come from outside Syria, according to Peter Bouckaert. Emergencies director for Human Rights Watch.
“Everything we have seen so far has been captured from Syrian army bases. We have kept a close watch on what has been coming out of Libya but we have seen no surface-to-air missiles from there used in Syria,” Bouckaert said.
Videos and witness accounts suggest that the rebels have seized SA-7 missiles, a Soviet-era weapon, and the later version, the SA-16. They have also shown off training versions of a state-of-the-art Russian-made SA-24, which like its predecessor uses heatseeking guidance systems.
Over the past 10 years, Damascus has tried to buy SA-24s from Russia but there has been no hard evidence it succeeded. The silver-coloured training versions spotted so far could have been demonstration models or part of a bigger package that may have included live missiles.
Matt Schroeder, of the Federation of American Scientists, said: “If so, that would be the first time we have seen the SA-24 in the hands of a non-state actor. Once weapons like this get outside the control of government, it is difficult to stop them spreading.”
Rebel acquisition of significant numbers of such missiles would neutralise the government’s air superiority and consolidate the rebel hold of a strip of northern Syria. It could prove to be a tipping point in the conflict, and a terrorist concern for years to come. According to one estimate, there are still 600 Stinger missiles, the US equivalent to the SA-7, unaccounted for from the CIA-backed mujahideen war against the Soviet army in Afghanistan.
“What is striking is that almost immediately, they were diverted,” Schroeder said. “Some were seized by the Soviets, and Stingers were acquired by the Iranians within a year.”
Experts are doubtful about some of the precautions suggested by the Gulf states. The argument that the battery eventually expires, thereby robbing the SA-7 of its guidance system, has been undermined by the experience in Libya, where decades-old weapons appeared to function perfectly. The idea of doling them out in small batches to trusted rebel commanders and only providing more once they have been accounted for, by the return of used missile-tubes for example, was tried unsuccessfully by the mujahideen’s Pakistani handlers in the 1980s.
“The problem is, once you set this genie out of the bag it is much harder to control,” Bouckaert says. “There are very grave risks. It is the number-one weapon on the terrorist shopping list.”