In Syria, Inching Toward Ground-to-Air Capacity?

Another tantalizing snippet from Syria, suggesting that the Free Syrian Army, which is locked in battle against government of President Bashar al-Assad, might be taking possession of more anti-aircraft weapons.

The camera that made this video whips around quickly and in dim light, making the scene not entirely clear. The audio includes voices discussing the seizure of arms in Al Bukamal (Deir Azzour) from a Syrian Army anti-aircraft unit (battalion) on August 30.  

Al Bukamal is here.

Among those who follow MANPADS, the shabby acronym for Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (best known as weapons of the Stinger type), this new video has started the usual discussion. What can be seen? What does it mean?  Is this a batch of MANPADS components? 

The short answer: It’s not entirely clear. But look past the usual batch of questions for a moment, to the larger trend and the all-but-sure direction of this fight.

The At War blog has spent a fair bit of ink trying to make sense of the MANPADS questions. And there certainly are many reasons to be vigilant for signs of MANPADS. But these reasons are not just tied to the immediate course of the war, as much of the amped-up MANPADS discussion would have it. Why? Because no matter the potential strategic significance of these weapons and the emotional energy they summon, the role of any influx of MANPADS to rebel hands would in all likelihood principally to be to accelerate the end of Syrian Air Force’s free hand, which in any event can be expected to wither on its own with time.  

Let’s be clear: The high interest in MANPADS has as much to do with long-term regional aviation security as it does with the anti-government fighters’ pressing needs to ground the Syrian fleet and prevent further air-to-ground attacks, like this one, on Syrian homes and Syrian cities. And that is one of the reasons so much attention adheres to this subject.

So, back to it. In the case of the video at the top of this post, as in many others, the video’s meaning is elusive. But what we do know is this: whether the FSA has its hands on more MANPADS, it has been succeeding lately in downing government aircraft.  And between these dramatic tactical successes by the rebels and the strains put on its fleet by its own operational tempo, the Syrian Air Force is an outfit that cannot last. Like the Syrian Army, its days are numbered. That is not side-taking. It’s cold military reality.

On that point, this video of an ejected pilot descending by parachute while under fire, and its companion of the pilot’s remains a short while later, is instructive. It is a chronicle of an air force’s passing, foretold — whether MANPADS hasten events along or no.

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