Saudi Arabia has hinted that it will begin supplying surface to air missiles to the moderate rebels in Syria. The Saudi foreign minister stated that it could “change the balance of power on the ground” in the war torn nation.This brings up a number the questions;what are these weapons? And after years of war in Syria why would Saudi Arabia only now start supplying these weapons?
The successes attributed to Russia’s intervention have created a dire situation for the rebels. Before the Russian intervention the Syrian Air Force was ineffective, ill trained and facing massive attrition. Assad had to resort to dropping barrel bombs out of helicopters in an attempt to terrorize the opposition into submission.
The Russian incursion has pushed the war in Assad’s favor. Russia has delivered new weapons and supplies to the regime and the Russian air force has been coordinating with Syrian ground forces. Area’s hostile to regime have been heavily bombed and rebels pushed back by regime offensives. As of February 2016, the rebels are close to losing Aleppo; one of their last major strongholds in Northern Syria.
The weapons Saudi minister is likely talking about are Man Portable Air Defense Systems or MANPADS. MANPADS are exactly what they sound like. Usually they consists of a single tube missile launcher with a sensor and targeting system that can track and shoot down an aircraft.They are small enough to be carried by a single person and (depending on the type) can be used to shoot down targets 4.5 to 6 km in height and are limited to roughly 7 to 9 km in range. They are also limited to attacking only subsonic targets.
These weapons are fairly useless against any modern jet fighter or bombers flying at high altitude or high speed. However, they are effective against both helicopters and low flying, slow, attack planes like the Su-25 Frogfoot. If they were to distributed in sufficient quantities they could severely restrict the effectiveness of Russian close air support and force them to use a smaller selection of planes at altitudes that make their unguided weapons less effective. This could give the rebels the space they need to stop the advance of Assad’s forces.
There has been much made about the possibility of supplying rebel groups with MANPADS. The idea is not exactly new. In the 1980s the United States had FIM-92 “Stingers” shipped to Afghan rebels during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. These events were most famously documented and dramatized in the book “Charlie Wilson’s War”.
Politically, things have changed since then. It is now well known that the Afghan war had some unintended consequences. Not all of the groups the U.S the backed remained friendly. Today, the fear is that not only could a rebel group turn against us, but that even if they don’t, the weapon could fall into wrong hands. One potential scenario involves a terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda or ISIS getting hold of a missile and using it to shoot down an airliner.
Given the desperate situation the rebels are in, the Saudis might think it would be worth the risk to supply some of their proxies with air defense. The rebels need something to mitigate the new advantage Russia has given the regime. Without some kind of intervention the rebellion may not last long. Saudi Arabia’s planned intervention is unlikely to be massive, and force multipliers are needed against the regimes new weapons, allies and momentum. They need every advantage they can get.