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Syria: Everything You Wanted to Know About Islamist Rebels Who Can Shoot Down Planes

Advanced anti-aircraft missiles in the hands of Syrian Islamist rebels could be used, after they win the civil war there, against neighboring countries and even against commercial passenger planes. It seems as if the attempts to get back advanced weapons from Libya played a central role in the mission that led to the Benghazi incident. As Libya also showed, once rebels overthrow a government, U.S. attempts to ensure its arsenals aren't opened to terrorists abroad are unlikely to succeed fully.

(On how fear of Syrian Islamist rebels getting advanced weaponry and attacking the country's neighbors in the future has shifted U.S. policy, see here. On the spread of weapons from Libya, see here.)

So what is this issue all about? Fortunately, there’s a remarkably useful site in the UK called Brown Moses that professionally assesses this and other weapons issues in the Middle East. If you are interested in such things, by all means go there.

Briefly, the story is this: the weapons are generically known as MANPAD, for man-portable air-defense missile. The equipment captured in Libya and from the Syrian army in Syria or obtained by other means consists of four types.

The SA16 is a short-range version which has been captured by the rebels, specifically when they took the giant Syrian army base in Aleppo.

The only weapon from Libya is the older SA7, since the Libyans didn't have more advanced versions. It has been reported -- though all such figures are not necessarily reliable -- that about 5,000 SA7 missiles were destroyed by the U.S. and other forces but that about 15,000 remained missing. The missiles are not usable forever, and some of those in the Libyan arsenal were very old, but apparently many of them would still work. Here's an example of a reasonably reliable report saying that a large number of SA7s were delivered to Syrian rebels through Turkey last September.

A rebel fires a rocket at a Libyan air force jet near on March 2 near Brega.

Joel Silva/Folhapress, via Reuters: A rebel fires a rocket at a Libyan air force jet on March 2, 2011.

 Then there's the Chinese FN-6 standard for the Chinese air force, which was used to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter at Menagh Air Base near Aleppo. How did that one get there -- through the U.S.-Turkish-Saudi-Qatari arms supply program, or another way? It is claimed that Syrian rebels shot down two military helicopters with this weapon. 

FN6 fired by Chinese soldiers

And this brings us to the best of all, the SA24. While some have been misidentified, they were obtained from the 46th Syrian regiment base west of Aleppo.

 SA24, with rebel sending a message to the Assad regime

There are a number of videos available, though in many cases it is not clear whether the rebels also have the grip stick without which the missile is inoperable. Some videos that purport to show operational SA24s are merely training equipment that cannot be used in combat.

Nevertheless, the rebels definitely have such equipment. As the Brown Moses site points out, new MANPADs have arrived through Turkey recently. The Guardian quotes an opposition leader as claiming: "A Syrian army helicopter and a Mig warplane had been shot down in the past two days, for the first time by imported missiles ... 'released from the Turkish warehouses. These are weapons the opposition had purchased previously but had not been allowed to take across the border.'" Reuters quotes several rebel commanders and fighters as saying the same thing.

New information:  According to the UN experts' report on smuggling from Libya, SA-24s were found--contrary to other sources--among weapons being sent to the Syrian rebels on the intercepted Letfallah II ship.