Downing warplanes, Orwell and “US-backed” rebels

Russian helicopter on humanitarian mission
The Russian helicopter shot down by rebels on August 1, showing the “humanitarian” cargo Russia claimed it was carrying.

Originally published in The New Arab with the title ‘Anti-aircraft missiles could be a game-changer in Syria’:

Comment: Syrian rebels are frequently portrayed as US-armed western stooges. The truth couldn’t be more different, as Washington denies opposition fighters the weapons needed to protect lives, writes Michael Karadjis

On August 1, Syrian rebels shot down a Russian armoured assault helicopter in Idlib which was returning from neighbouring Aleppo, where Russian and Syrian regime aircraft have been waging a merciless aerial massacre.

The ongoing slaughter in Aleppo, Idlib, Daraya and elsewhere highlights the rebels’ dire need for anti-aircraft weaponry. However, the United States has vigorously enforced an embargo against the rebels receiving these crucial weapons throughout the war.

While rebel downings of air-war vehicles have thus been few and far between, this latest hit followed the downing of some half a dozen warplanes or helicopters around Damascus in June and July.

A handful of Russian-made SA-8 anti-aircraft missiles, which were used in these hits, were captured by the rebels from the regime back in 2012. As they were few, they are used sparingly, and it took them years to make them functional.

Likewise, most weaponry in the hands of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been gained by capture or made in back-yards. As one (more honestly titled) article put it: ‘Syria’s ‘Western-Backed’ Rebels? Not in Weapons’.

The routine use of the adjective “US-backed” for non-jihadist rebels – a grossly Orwellian piece of media-speak – greatly obfuscates the real US connection to the indigenous mass uprising against the Assad dictatorship.

By mid-2012, a flow of weapons from former Libyan rebels began to reach Syrian rebels via Turkey. Later that year the US began its first major intervention in Syria, positioning CIA agents in Turkey to restrict the quality, quantity and destination of these arms.

While warplanes and helicopters had replaced tanks as the main form of regime slaughter by mid-2012, this US embargo blocked not only anti-aircraft but also anti-tank weaponry. Thus only small arms and ammunition were allowed, in the face of a massively armed regime continually supplied by Russia and Iran.

Such weapons were barely enough for survival, but this was no oversight; despite calling on Assad to “step down,” the US government made clear that the aim was precisely to bolster the regime as a whole. Therefore, these arms were not even remotely intended to be of the quantity or quality necessary to aid a rebel victory, but more to the point, they were not even aimed at enhancing tactical rebel victories on the ground. In fact, not even creating a permanent ‘balance’ with the regime, so that “no-one wins”, was the aim, despite this being a common claim; even an objective as limited as that would have required a more consistent amount of better weaponry, given what the regime possesses.

No, allowing for the bare survival of the rebels was the US (and western) aim: western policy-makers knew if the rebels were totally crushed, this would bolster Sunni jihadist forces as the only opposition to which the dispossessed Sunni majority could gravitate; whereas if they survived but were weakened, the moderate opposition leaderships could hopefully be pressured into accepting a role within a “reformed” regime, which would then wage war on the jihadists – and anyone else still resisting, who would be labelled “terrorists.”

This ‘Yemeni solution’ has been US policy all along, from Geneva I and II through the current round in close cooperation with Russia. In its latest edition, even Assad himself could remain as head of an “transitional” government.

Thus while the US itself restricted its own support to non-lethal aid, the only arms it would allow regional states to send the rebels were those of the quality they already had. This could allow the US to attempt to contain and co-opt the uprising, while leading to no “danger” of strengthening them.

When the US did start supplying some “vetted” rebels with light arms in late 2013, the fact that the aim was bare survival plus co-optation is exemplified by reports of rebels getting supplied 16 bullets a month. As for the CIA training program that went with this, many rebels – who already knew how to fight – felt the main American interest was surveillance.

Why then did the US lift its embargo on anti-tank weapons in 2014? Of course, to do this two years after tanks had been superseded by aircraft as the main killer was far too late; nevertheless, ground warfare still plays a crucially important role.

The first reports of US-made TOW anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM’s) supplied to the FSA group Harakat Hazm emerged in April 2014. They were mainly supplied by Saudi Arabia from its stocks, but it is believed that the Saudis need US permission to supply US weapons, though this may often be a tussle between the two.

US pressure is clear: only “vetted” groups get TOWs, sometimes only 3-4 at a time, they have to apply for them for specific operations, they have to return the shells to make a claim for more, which may or may not be approved. Even favoured groups soon found supplies dwindling, and the program had greatly diminished by late 2014.

However, after Russia invaded in October 2015, Saudi Arabia sent some 500 Tows to Syria, which led to the famous “tank massacre.” The furious Saudis had promised a swift response to the Russian invasion, so it is likely they would have sent these TOWs regardless of US permission. Even if the US gave permission for a large supply in this instance, to remind Russia it was there and to treat it as a partner, it was a one-off; supplies again dwindled to nothing by late 2015.

While the TOW was a significant improvement in US support, in fact the same pattern applied as with small arms. By the time the US began allowing the Saudis to send TOWs, the rebels had already acquired a large range of ATGMs, which had already taken out 1800 tanks by late 2013. Nearly all were Russian or East European made, that is, they were captured Syrian army weapons.

So again: as the rebels already had them, opening an “official” supply allowed for influence for future co-optation and some US control of who gets what, while not upping the quality of rebel weaponry. In fact, the TOW is reportedly less efficient than Russian-made Konkurs and Kornets which the rebels have captured from the regime.

This leads to the current appearance of anti-aircraft activity, which as explained did not result from any loosening of the US embargo on anti-aircraft weapons. In fact, in the last 6-8 months the US has tightened its arms embargoes on all weapons against the rebels, while more or less openly collaborating with Russia against them.

In theory, the embargo aims to prevent anti-aircraft weapons getting into the hands of terrorists who might down civilian planes. Yet such weapons exist on the black market; the US, however, has gone out of its way to prevent the FSA from getting any even from there. What this means is that the anti-aircraft weapons that do get snapped up from the black market end up in the hands of anyone other than the FSA.

This thereby reduces whatever control western states might seek to have over the destination of black market anti-aircraft missiles. Most of the six southern hits are thought to have been made by the Islamist militia Jaysh Islam, which captured the weapons from the regime in 2012. While not strictly speaking FSA, neither is JI a “terrorist” group that would hit civilian aircraft.

However, ISIS also recently shot down a Russian warplane. Thus, US policy of blocking these arms to the FSA has not prevented the most uber-terrorist organisation getting its hands on them.

Will this appearance of captured anti-aircraft weapons lead the US to ease its embargo on providing them to the FSA, in the pattern of small arms and later anti-tank weapons? The likelihood would appear remote.

These weapons are simply too decisive. The fundamental US and western opposition to significant military defeats for the regime – requiring as they do weakened rebels for an Oslo-style capitulation – remains the underlying reason for the embargo on decisive weapons reaching the rebels, rather than the scarecrow of them reaching terrorists.

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