by DAVID AXE
The embattled regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad has unleashed its air forces against fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army in the city of Aleppo and other battlegrounds. Government Mi-8 Hip helicopters and MiG-23 and L-39 jets have added gun- and rocket-fire to the army’s indiscriminate artillery barrages.
But the rebels are not defenseless. And according to Al Arabiya and the U.K. Mirror, FSA fighters have received 14 Stinger shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. If the reports are true — and that’s a big “if” — the Stingers would reinforce the rebels’ existing air-defense arsenal of heavy machine guns and at least one captured ZSU-23-4 gun vehicle.
The air battle has escalated. In the beginning of the more-than-year-old civil war, the Assad regime was reluctant to use fixed-wing aircraft and relied mostly on Mi-8s fitted with machine guns and rockets, as seen in the recent video below. The rebels claimed at least one Mi-8 shot down, apparently by gunfire.
But as rebels forces closed in on Assad’s seats of power, the regime ordered jet fighters into the fray. The rebels had previously destroyed at least one MiG-23 on the ground, but the surviving fighters, from an overall inventory numbering in the hundreds, targeted insurgents in Aleppo and elsewhere, helping at least briefly to drive back the rebels.
The aerial balance of power could shift back in the FSA’s favor. Last week rebels reportedly shot down a MiG-23 with gunfire, as seen in the video at top. And if the FSA truly does possess Stingers and is able to use them effectively, government aircraft could find themselves outgunned.
Arming the rebels is risky. Washington fears the Stingers could wind up in the hands of terror groups that might use them to attack airliners. Reportedly Somali insurgents have somehow gained access to the latest Russian-made SA-18, a rough analogue to the Stinger. A multi-national team scoured Libya for “loose” SA-7 surface-to-air missiles during that country’s civil war and recovered some 5,000 of the weapons.