The New York Times reports that the Syrian rebels have gotten their hands on surface-to-air rockets and have used them at least once to down a regime helicopter, as shown above. The question now becomes: how did they get them? According to the Times:
Debate has raged since the start of the insurgency over whether Western and Arab nations should provide Syria’s rebels with portable antiaircraft missiles, often called Manpads. Some fear that such weapons could be smuggled away from the conflict and later used by terrorists against civilian airliners.
Manpads funneled by the United States to Pakistan helped Afghan rebels turn the tide against the Soviet Union in the Afghan war of 1980s. But that example is full of ambivalence — often cited in the Syria debate — because it led to an extended buyback program and decades of worry after Islamist militias, which eventually collaborated with Al Qaeda, prevailed over the Soviet-backed government in Kabul.
“Once these weapons are outside of government control, it is often extremely difficult to track their movement and control who has access to them,” said Matthew Schroeder, an analyst who studies missile proliferation at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
The rebels have slowly been acquiring them nonetheless, including from Syrian military stock captured in battle, and according to the unconfirmed accounts of some rebel commanders, via smuggling from outside.
Tuesday’s helicopter downing occurred not far from a large military base outside Aleppo, which rebels overran last week. It comes after a monthlong string of rebel raids on air bases, followed by their ransacking for weapons.
Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called the use of the missile “a big deal, but not a surprising deal,” and said it appeared to confirm one of two things: weapons seized from bases are functional, or that there has been truth to the quiet talk that after the recent meeting in Doha, Qatar, to reorganize the Syrian opposition into a new coalition, outside countries would provide more sophisticated weapons to the rebels.
It would be one thing if the rebels raided regime stocks - that's unavoidable. But if any Western government thinks funneling surface-to-air missiles to Syrian rebels is a good idea, they need to have their heads examined. These weapons can be used to down passenger jets and there's no way that Western intelligence officials could stop a few of these weapons from leaking beyond Syria (it will be hard enough to stop Syria's own stockpiles from leaking).
Al-Qaeda has a long and ugly history of targeting Western aircraft. Literally handing over potent tools to Islamist rebels to do just that is insane.