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What's up with Syria's MANPADS?

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.

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The Election 2012 Weekly Report: European Vacation

Mitt Romney may have hoped for a couple of days of softball coverage as he began his three-country international tour with a stop at the London Olympics, but he's run straight into the buzzsaw of the British media with a series of gaffes and unforced errors.

First, in a Wednesday night interview, the former Salt Lake City Olympics chief told NBC's Brian Williams, "There are a few things that were disconcerting, the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging." He also suggested that it wasn't yet clear whether Britons would "come together and celebrate the Olympic moment."

The comments earned rebukes from Prime Minister David Cameron, who seemed to mock Utah by suggesting that it's "easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere" and London mayor Boris Johnson, who openly mocked Romney in a public speech.

But Romney wasn't done with the awkward moments. He seemed to forget Labour leader Ed Miliband's name, calling him "Mr. Leader" in a private meeting; mentioned an appointment at MI6 -- the intelligence agency whose activities are rarely publicly discussed by politicians; referred to looking out the "backside" of 10 Downing Street, a word with somewhat different connotations in British English. Add to that an unnamed advisor's racially incendiary comment that Romney would restore "Anglo-Saxon" relations between the two countries and you have the makings of what the British twittersphere is referring to as the #romneyshambles -- a play on the term "omnishambles" from the popular political satire "The Thick of It." Even right-wing British newspapers were referring to the candidate as "worse than Sarah Palin."

The Romney campaign will be hoping for better luck as world tour continues with stops in Germany, Poland, and Israel.

Speech-off:

Before Romney's trip began, he and President Barack Obama faced off with dueling national security speeches to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) conference in Reno, Nevada. Without mentioning him by name, Obama seemed to suggest that Romney's plans for Afghanistan were vague and undefined, saying, "When you're commander in chief, you owe the troops a plan. You owe the country a plan." Romney's speech accused the president of allowing U.S. military power and political leadership to wane, saying, "[W]hen it comes to national security and foreign policy, as with our economy, the last few years have been a time of declining influence and missed opportunity."

Leak attack:

Romney also used the VFW speech to accuse the Obama administration of strategically leaking classified defense information to the press at a time when "Lives of American servicemen and women are at stake." The day after the speech, a top Romney advisor -- former George W. Bush envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson -- accused National Security Advisor Tom Donilon of being the source of recent leaks to the New York Times.

This week in Jerusalem:

Romney is likely hoping that he can make up for the not-so-graceful performance in London with a warmer welcome in Israel, where he will arrive on Saturday. In an interview with Haaretz in advance of his visit, Romney reaffirmed his willingness to use force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and suggested he would refrain from publicly criticizing the Jewish state.  "There will be, of course, times of disagreement and disparity in our respective interests... but those are best in keeping to ourselves, in private," he said.

In a bit of likely-not-so-coincidental timing, Obama signed a new bill into law on Friday, increasing U.S. military cooperation with Israel -- including $70 million for the country's "Iron Dome" missile defense system. Campaign advisors also suggested Obama will visit the country in his second term. The lack of a visit so far in his presidency has been a popular Republican talking point. 

The Syrian equation:

The Obama administration appears to be moving toward greater assistance to the rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, including providing supplies and communications equipment and sharing intelligence. "I have to say that we are also increasing our efforts to assist the opposition," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. Despite this increased participation, a lack of CIA assets on the ground may be hampering U.S. efforts to learn more about the opposition forces.

The latest from FP:

Alistair Burnett on how the U.S. presidential race looks from London.

Oren Kessler on Romney's opportunity to court the Jewish vote in Israel.

Aaron David Miller warns that a showdown with Benjamin Netanyahu is likely if Obama is elected.

Joshua Keating looks at the very recent "tradition" of U.S. presidential candidates heading abroad.

Michael Cohen takes a look at whether Obama has kept his campaign promises.

Daniel Altman argues that Republicans intentionally sabotaged the economic recovery.

Mark Leonard looks at how Europe fell out of love with Obama.

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