In 2011, it was reported that the Libyan rebels had acquired surface-to-air missiles from Gaddafi’s arsenal, and smuggled them into their own. They were not used in the revolution because the skies were filled with allies of the militias, but American sources worried that as many as 15,000 MANPADs (man-portable air defense systems — or mobile surface-to-air missiles) might have “gone missing.” Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro told USA Today:
The frank answer is we don’t know (how many are missing) and probably never will.
He added that the Obama administration took “immediate steps” to secure the weapons, launching an effort to recover them even before collapse of the regime. Which is interesting, because the U.S. claimed to have no “boots on the ground.”
So who was looking for them? And if they found them, what did they do with them?
Some, at least, appear to have emerged in Syria — in August there was a report of a Syrian government plane downed by the rebels. In October, the Russians claimed the rebels had U.S.-origin Stinger missiles. (Stingers are designed to hit helicopters and low-flying planes — they wreaked havoc with Russian aircraft during the war in Afghanistan.) The BBC reported that the Syrians had old Soviet SA-7 missiles that can destroy an airplane flying at higher altitudes.
Whether Russian or American, the introduction of MANPADS into the region would be cause for alarm. The Levant is not isolated to Afghanistan, and the multinational nature of the Syrian rebels puts a number of countries and their interests in harm’s way. A stray shot — or a deliberate diversion — could be used against Israeli commercial or military aviation. Or American aviation. Turkey would have to worry that the Kurdish part of the anti-Assad revolution might divert its energies to assist in the Kurdish guerrilla movement against Turkey; Turkey’s war against the PKK is largely conducted with helicopters. Jordan would have to worry that the Muslim Brotherhood part of the Syrian rebellion could divert its energies to assist the MB in Jordan against U.S. ally King Abdullah II. Russia would worry that missiles could be diverted to the anti-Russian Sunni jihadists of the Caucasus or Central Asia.
In October, the IDF confirmed that a surface-to-air missile, said to be an SA-7, was fired at a helicopter from Gaza. Iran had not provided such weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, perhaps understanding that such an escalation would produce Israeli retaliation. The fact that Israel struck the Sudanese Yarmouk rocket/missile factory at the end of October may have been a reminder of the consequences of escalation.