The Syrian government’s shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and launchers could imperil civil aviation if they fall into the hands of terror groups, according to an independent report examining the global proliferation of portable missiles.
Citing video and photo evidence from opposition forces, media and official accounts, the Federation of American Scientists (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.
The 88-page report warns about man-portable air-defense systems, also known as MANPADS, in the arsenal of Syrian President Bashar 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. Syria’s anti-aircraft missile inventory is comparable in size to that amassed by Libyan forces before the 2011 ouster of Moammar Gadhafi.
The FAS study cites the widespread looting of anti-aircraft weapons that occurred after Gadhafi’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. Portable anti-aircraft missiles have most often been used by non-government forces in conflict zones such as Iraq, where U.S. aircraft were targeted and sometimes struck by militants. Civilian passenger flights have never been threatened by shoulder-fired missiles in the U.S., but there have been nearly a dozen lethal strikes over the past decade in Asia and Africa.
The FAS report said the terrorist group al-Shabab in Somalia used an SA-18 missile to shoot down a Belarusian cargo aircraft departing from Mogadishu in 2007. Many of the portable launchers displayed by Syrian rebel groups on the Internet appear to be decades-old models such as Russian-made SA-7s — similar to ones found in Libya after Gadhafi’s ouster. Unlike Libya, Syria’s military has a larger supply of newer and longer-range models supplied from Russia, and as a result, Syrian rebels also appear to have seized some new-model Russian missile launchers.