Syrian Militias Ask America — Give Us Your Surface-to-Air Missiles, Please
Don’t count on it
by PAUL IDDON
Since the Obama administration waived the Arms Export Control Act to supply its Syrian militia ally with weapons, the group revealed it’s hoping to receive anti-aircraft missiles.
In January 2017, spokesman Talal Silo of the Syrian Democratic Forces said his group wants shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, or MANDPADs, to confront any airborne threats his group might face in the future, according to Reuters. He offered no speculation as to whose aircraft the missiles might be needed to shoot down.
More likely than not, it would be Syrian, Turkish or Russian aircraft.
But good luck, SDF. The odds are practically zero that the United States will supply air-to-air missiles to the group, unless there is a major shift in U.S. policy. That will leave the SDF with a significant military vulnerability in the months and years ahead.
Established in October 2015, the SDF is a coalition of non-Kurdish fighters who fight Islamic State militants alongside the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, also known as the YPG.
The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, a Syrian Kurdish party believed to be either an affiliate or an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.
Turkey alleges that the YPG is no different than the PKK — which Ankara considers to be a terrorist group — and should be treated as such. The United States emphasizes a distinction and uses that as justification to provide weapons to both the SDF and YPG, given their valuable efforts battling the Islamic State in Syria.
Were the United States to provide such missiles to the SDF or YPG, they could attempt to shoot down Turkish warplanes which have bombed both groups.
On one occasion in August 2016, Syrian warplanes bombed Kurdish security forces in the city of Hasakah during clashes between them and the National Defense Forces, a pro-Assad militia. The United States promptly sent in F-22 stealth fighters to deter the Syrian bombers, which attempted to carry out more attacks.
Damascus could potentially mount similar attacks again, a possibility the Kurdish-led militias cannot disregard. Scenarios like this were likely on Silo’s mind when he expressed hope his group would receive such missiles.
But don’t count on it.
“There is no chance that the U.S. will supply shoulder fired missiles to the SDF,” Aaron Stein, an expert on U.S.-Turkey relations at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East told War Is Boring. “It’s an odd thing that has been circling around social media.”
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert from the University of Oklahoma, is also extremely skeptical of such a prospect. “I don’t think there is any chance that the Obama administration will begin to provide ground to air missiles to militant groups in Syria, even to those it favors, such as the SDF,” Landis said.
“I don’t believe Trump will either,” he added. “It is too dangerous. The chance of these weapons getting into the hands of proscribed groups is too big. Were the PKK to shoot down a Turkish plane with one of these, it could destroy U.S.-Turkish relations.”
In May 2016, the PKK reportedly downed a Turkish Cobra helicopter with a Russian-made SA-18 shoulder-fired missile. And in February 2008, the PKK claimed to have shot down a Turkish attack helicopter during a Turkish military operation inside Iraqi Kurdistan.
In both cases, Turkey acknowledged losing helicopters, but did not say those incidents were a result of PKK fire.
There is some evidence that the PKK acquired MANPADs in the 1990s. The Kurdish rebel group sought such missiles to counter Turkish jet fighters and helicopters, according to a history of the group by journalist Aliza Marcus. Aircraft gave the Turks a technological edge over their guerrilla adversaries.
However, the PKK’s primary foreign backer at the time, Syria, did not want to supply them with such advanced game-changing weaponry since that would have risked escalation — and could have sparked a direct Turkish retaliation.
Marcus also pointed out that Russians advised the PKK in the mid-1990s on how to fire MANPADs. These individuals were likely former military personnel who exchanged their expertise for PKK money.
The PKK’s missile launchers were reportedly Russian-made SA-7s, known to have been in the Iraqi arsenal, and which the PKK could have acquired around 1991.
It remains unclear if the PKK still possesses operational anti-aircraft weapons, or if they have ever attempted to pass on such weapons to their Syrian Kurdish allies.
If not, Syrian Kurdish forces will have to make do — without MANPADs.