It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall at the meeting last Friday between US President Obama and Saudi King Abdullah. With reports emerging that Obama is again considering the possibility of supplying shoulder-fired air-defence missiles to some elements of the Syrian rebels, it’s timely to remember the previous US experience in relation to this subject.
That was back in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration, upon the urging of a small but influential group of congressmen, decided to supply Stinger portable anti-aircraft missiles to the resistance fighters in Afghanistan. The experience still sears, and not least because parts of the Afghan resistance went on to become our enemy down the track. Putting it briefly, the US supplied the missiles, the Pakistanis delivered them, the Saudis paid for them and the mujahidin used them. There’s always a possibility of mischief when the supplier of a piece of kit isn’t the deliverer, and when the purchaser isn’t the end user. When what’s usually a two-party standard arms sale agreement (supplier–purchaser) becomes a four-party deal, it increases the prospect that the interests between them might vary radically.
That proved to be the case in Afghanistan. The Americans supplied several hundred Stinger missiles, and it proved both difficult and expensive to get them back when the war was over. Many were never recovered. Further, the US had no clear record that provided accountability over where the individual missiles had gone. Because Pakistan’s ISI was the key delivery agent, weapons were allocated to different factions within the mujahidin, more in accord with Pakistani preferences than US ones.
Any attempt to repeat this exercise with the Syrian rebels in place of the Afghanistan mujahidin should give most people pause for thought. True, these rebels are trying to counter the Syrian Air Force and not the Soviet one, so they probably wouldn’t need hundreds of missiles—tens might be enough. And the US might be able to install some form of automatic use-by-date on the weapons now; back in the 1980s, the limiting point of the Stingers was their battery life, and that always left analysts pondering just how hard it would be to jury-rig a new battery for the launcher.
On the other hand, the number of foreign fighters, including al-Qaeda affiliates, already in Syria suggests that we’d risk spreading expertise in the usage of Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) across several continents. And there’s no guarantee that some weapons wouldn’t slip through nerveless fingers within the use-by-date. One could be enough to bring down a commercial airliner and dent the confidence of commercial airlines flying global routes. In late 2003, a civilian cargo plane flying out of Baghdad was hit by a surface-to-air missile; an attack on a plane full of passengers would make bigger headlines.
Where do Australian interests figure in all of this? Well, we have interests in the safety and security of advanced weapons systems, but also in the geopolitical shape of the Middle East. We’d like the US and the Saudis to continue to be on good relations—a Saudi Arabia that goes its own way could be the catalyst for a radically different Middle East. But we also shouldn’t be keen to see highly-capable US missiles find their way into the hands of Syrian rebels. If supply occurs at all, better that it happen through the provision of rather less capable surface-to-air weapons. That, again, might offer a parallel with the earlier Afghanistan case, because there’d already been a supply of less capable weapons (the SA-7 and the Blowpipe) to the mujahidin before the Americans turned up offering the Stingers. Advocates of supply then argued that the resistance ought to have sufficient weapons to fight and win, not just enough to fight and die. Because there’s no Soviet connection here, there are fewer voices now in the US advocating supply of advanced MANPADS in the Syrian case. So much will depend on just how convincingly the Saudis have pressed the case.
Media reports since about mid-2012 suggest that small numbers of less capable air defence missiles are, in fact, already making their way into the hands of the rebels—principally by capture and smuggling. That’s probably a good place to draw the line. Surely the key question must be whether the Syrian Air Force is so dominant that it can determine the outcome of the civil war? I suspect the answer is no. If so, there’s less pressure to supply an offsetting capability to the rebels.
Rod Lyon is a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.