While plenty of attention has been given to the question of what would happen if Syrian President Bashar al Assad's massive -- and fairly well-guarded -- stockpile of chemical weapons fell into the wrong hands, not enough has been given to the danger posed by his army's thousands of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, also known as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS).
Earlier this week, Syrian rebels publicly appealed to Washington to deliver shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles, arguing that such weapons will make a key difference in how quickly the rebels, who are increasingly adept at fighting Assad's ground troops but have been suffering helicopter attacks with little recourse, can topple Assad's government. While the Obama administration has signaled that it may increase support to the rebels -- beyond the flak jackets, radios, medical gear, and (possibly) tactical training it is already giving them -- if they can carve out a safe haven from which to base their operations, it says that it has no plans to provide them with weapons.
The United States isn't in any hurry to arm the rebels with MANPADS for good reason; if just one modern shoulder-fired missile slipped into the wrong hands, it could be used to bring down a civilian airliner, killing hundreds of people.
Even the Syrian regime's aging stockpile of Soviet-made SA-7s could pose a threat to civilian planes, the Federation of American Scientists' Matt Schroeder told FP today. He pointed out that SA-7s have been used to shoot down several civilian planes. There was a famous incident in Baghdad in 2003 where an Airbus A300 cargo plane on contract to DHL was hit by an SA-7 and almost crashed. This incident prompted some commercial carriers such as FedEx to equip their jets with laser-countermeasures designed to defeat shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles.
Videos have already emerged showing Syrian rebels armed with SA-7 units, though it is impossible to tell whether these were taken from Syrian government caches or if the weapons were smuggled into the country. (It should be noted that the weapons shown in the videos lack their grip stocks, meaning that they can't be launched as designed). While SA-7s do pose some threat, their effective shelf life is considered to be 10 to 15 years, according to Schroeder. While most Russian-made SA-7s are decades old, knockoffs have been made outside of Russia in recent years.
As the rebels become a more potent force, there is little doubt they will capture more government weapons or get them from military defectors. So it may only be a matter of time before they acquire some of the SA-18 MANPADS that Syria is thought to have purchased from Russia. The SA-18 is an updated version of the 1980s-vintage SA-16, a shoulder-fired missile that may have successfully downed a British Tornado fighter and an American F-16 during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and a French Mirage 2000D over Bosnia in 1996.
It remains to be seen if the United States has a plan to secure Syria's MANPADS in the event that the Assad government falls -- similar to the one NATO implemented in Libya to secure Muammar al-Qaddafi's stockpile of surface-to air-missiles.
"If the regime collapses suddenly and the weapons are dispersed among many different arsenals around the country and those arsenals are looted relatively rapidly, it'll be very, very difficult to contain it," said Schroeder. "If the regime falls slowly, the U.S. can get on the ground and start negotiating with those folks that, potentially, have access to them, then maybe they can secure more of them or more of them more quickly. There's so much that is not known, a lot of this is speculation."
We've put a call in to the Pentagon and White House to see what they have to say about this. We'll update when we hear back from them.