Rebels fighting to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have for the first time acquired a small supply of surface-to-air missiles, according to a news report that a Western official did not dispute.
NBC News reported on Tuesday night that the rebel Free Syrian Army had obtained nearly two dozen of the weapons, which were delivered to them via Turkey, whose moderate Islamist government has been demanding al-Assad’s departure with increasing vehemence.
The indications are that the US government, which has said it opposes arming the rebels, is not responsible for the delivery of the missiles.
However, some US government sources have been saying for weeks that Arab governments seeking to oust al-Assad, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been pressing for such missiles, also known as man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs), to be supplied to the rebels.
In recent days, air operations against the rebels by Syrian government forces appear to have been stepped up, particularly around the contested city of Aleppo, making the rebels’ need for MANPADs more urgent.
Precisely what kind of MANPADs have been delivered to the Syrian rebels is unclear and NBC News did not provide details. Such weapons range from the primitive to highly sophisticated.
Some conservative US lawmakers such as Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have criticized the administration of US President Barack Obama for moving too slowly to assist the rebels and have suggested the US government should become directly involved in arming al-Assad’s opponents.
The White House, at least until now, has taken a considerably more cautious approach.
As of last month, US officials warned that if any Middle Eastern nation was “even considering giving arms to the Syrian opposition,” it ought to “take a measured approach and think twice about providing arms that could have unintended consequences.”
Nonetheless, even at that time, US and allied officials acknowledged that officials from Saudi Arabia and Qatar were discussing whether surface-to-air missiles might help Syrian rebels bring down the Russian-made helicopters and other aircraft used by the Syrian army to move troops between trouble spots.
Following the fall of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, some intelligence experts estimated that as many as 10,000 to 15,000 MANPADs sets were looted from Libyan government stockpiles. The whereabouts of most of these are unknown.
Many US officials have been wary of arming Syrian rebels with MANPADs, saying they could be easily turned on targets other than the Syrian government, including civilian airliners.
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the CIA, with Saudi backing, provided sophisticated shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to Islamic militants seeking to oust Soviet troops.
The missiles proved deadly against Soviet helicopter gunships, but subsequently became a major headache for US and western counter-terrorism agencies when anti-Soviet militants morphed into anti-Western militants.
Recent intelligence and news reporting has suggested a growing number of militants, including some affiliated with al-Qaeda, have traveled to Syria to try to join anti-Assad forces. However, US officials have said they do not believe the militants yet play a dominant role in the Syrian opposition.