Proliferation of MANPADS in Syria - Relevant Actors and Applicable Treaties for Policymakers
What are MANPADS? What is their relevance to the war in Syria? MANPADS (man portable air defense systems) are heat seeking shoulder fired missile platforms designed to destroy aircraft flying at anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 feet.* These systems have proliferated across Syria due to a combination of seizures from government stockpiles and supply from outside actors.
The first visual evidence of MANPADS in Syria appears online in August of 2012 as the nascent rebel army seized government warehouses across the country. In November of 2012 we see the first videos of shoulder fired platforms being used near Aleppo. During this time period we also see the first primitive tutorials for the weapons system appear online. Presumably this is for consumption by rebels operating in other parts of the country. It is unclear whether the people featured in these early videos were army defectors experienced with the system or not. Trade registers from the Stockholm Institute for International Peace indicate 15,000 MANPADS were exported to Syria between 1970-1983, along with much smaller shipments in the mid 1980’s. More advanced systems were imported from the Russian Federation in 2005 and 2008.**
Since 2012, the opposition has become more savvy in their efforts to show their expertise with the devises. In April 2016, the Homs Liberation Movement sent out a video press release documenting a training course they have set up for MANPADS. The video prominently features a system that does not match the description of any legally imported to Syria. This calls attention to the lackluster operational security measures among many moderate opposition factions. Other examples include when the now-defunct Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades announced the arrival of MANPADS to their group by videotaping their own weapon’s cache.
Since then, these platforms have been seen used in provinces across the country. But data indicates their use has been most prevalent in Aleppo, Hama and Idlib provinces. They have been seen used by a variety of different groups many of which are now defunct or swallowed by other larger groups. TOW supplied FSA groups such as the Knights of Justice Brigade and Yarmouk Army have been seen fielding the weapons, but so have jihadist factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra.
MANPADS are desired by the opposition due to their relative ease of use and mobility. The opposition has shot down both government helicopters and jets, but this is inefficient as it requires moving multiple anti-aircraft cannons to a location and firing in their general direction. Oftentimes these cannons are incapable of hitting a flying target, but have been used in combination with teams using MANPADS. The shoulder fired launchers are less bulky than anti-aircraft guns. Because of this, these systems can be placed in the back of an SUV or minivan and moved to a different location when the shooter is done.
Due to their relative scarcity and effectiveness against regime aircraft, MANPADS are highly valued to the opposition. Because of this, the weapons are used selectively. One example of this was in March of 2016 where Ahrar al-Sham in concert with other rebels, were able to shoot down a government jet. A video recorded joint operation between three Gulf backed opposition parties, the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade, Syrian Martyrs Brigade, and the early Authenticity and Development Front indicates this behavior is not too uncommon. The opacity of how these operations are conducted raise fears about chains of custody for weapons supplied by outside backers. At the same time, these operations show the sophistication with which the opposition can use MANPADS as a means to neutralize the airpower of government forces.
In addition to weapons collected from government stocks, MANPADS have been brought into Syria from outside. According to Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution, MANPADS have been imported to the Syrian opposition in at least three waves. Once in 2012, once 2013 and once in late 2015. If one holds the reports of past Gulf support to be accurate, it is plausible that the introduction of these new weapons platforms in 2015 was the military response Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey alluded to in their public statements this last Autumn. The narrative that the opposition needs better access to “more advanced” weapons systems continues to this day in the public statements of Gulf officials.
The introduction of man portable air-defense systems in 2013 is interesting insofar it correlates with a relative uptick in videos and pictures of their use appearing online in the Spring and Summer of that same year. In particular, it seems the systems were deployed multiple times by the opposition during the siege of Minakh Airbase during that timeframe. The presence of MANPADS at these locations is corroborated by reports made in New York Times during the same time period. Based on the available evidence there seems to be a correlation (at least in the 2013 period) between MANPADS use and opposition operations against Syrian government airbases.
While the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant played a major role in lifting the siege of Minakh Airbase, there is no evidence to show shoulder fired systems were ever used by ISIL during the siege there. This may prove to be a useful case study for researchers and policy makers concerned both about weapons proliferation and Syrian government strikes on civilian areas. Both issues are of grave concern to those in the human security arena. Thankfully, there is a substantial amount of research and international law already on the books related to the proliferation of MANPADS.
As of 2011 the US Department of State counted that 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADS. Of these, 28 civilian airliners crashed as a result of targeting by MANPADS. This resulted in approximately 800+ fatalities. While frightening at first glance, it must be noted that RAND would only classify five of these attacks as being on “large jet-powered airliners”. The term “civilian aircraft” used by the US Department of State needs unpacking as the civilian aircraft they refer to includes helicopters and propeller driven aircraft. These types of aircraft are more likely to be flying within the flight ceiling of most MANPADS. Civilian passenger jets operating at 20,000 or 30,000 feet lie outside of this zone. Still, the capacities of these systems have worried policy makers. Multilateral action to prevent their proliferation was put forward most forcefully in the early to mid-2000s.
International organizations such as the G8, which the United States is a leading member of, have called to “ban transfers of MANPADS to non-state end-users” in official documents. Blunt statements such as these leave little wiggle room on the part of member states. The language in other international agreements on the subject makes it clear that MANPADS should only be exported between governments. The Wassenaar Agreement (of which the G8 used as a framework for their own document) stipulates decisions to export MANPADS must take into account “the recipient government’s ability and willingness to protect against unauthorized re-transfers, loss, theft and diversion”. The G8 document however went further by calling “to ban transfers of MANPADS to non-state end-users”. The worn “ban” does not appear even in the 2007 amended Wassenaar agreement.
Regional international organizations such as APEC, and OSCE followed suit, using the framework put forward by the G8, and by extension the Wassenaar Agreement. In December 2004, the UN General Assembly adopted without vote draft resolution A/RES/59/90 which addresses the issue of MANPADS proliferation explicitly, by placing them within the framework of the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. In January 2006 the UN followed up with A/RES/60/77 further fleshing out the international rules and standards regarding MANPADS. These international agreements provide a useful starting point for understanding and dealing with the issue from a multilateral perspective.
Appendices and Further Data:
*The parameters for what constitute ‘MANPADS’ under international law can be found in Section 1.1 of the Wassenaar Agreement.
** Transfers of major conventional weapons: sorted by supplier. Deals with deliveries or orders made for year range 1967 to 2015:
Note: The ‘No. delivered/produced’ and the ‘Year(s) of deliveries’ columns refer to all deliveries since the beginning of the contract. Deals in which the recipient was involved in the production of the weapon system are listed separately. The ‘Comments’ column includes publicly reported information on the value of the deal. Information on the sources and methods used in the collection of the data, and explanations of the conventions, abbreviations and acronyms, can be found at here. The SIPRI Arms Transfers Database is continuously updated as new information becomes available.
Source: SIPRI Arms Transfers Database
Information generated: 17 May 2016
The following is a list of identified factions in the Syrian Civil War who have been sighted in the possession of, or using MANPADS. As not all operations where MANPADS are used document themselves, this list should not be read as a comprehensive one: