Who Supplied the MANPADS?

The downing of a Russian warplane in Syria could be a game-changer

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The announcement by Mahmoud Turkmani, military commander of Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front), that his forces shot down a Russian Sukhoi-25 warplane over the town of Saraqeb in the Idlib countryside may prove to be a turning-point in the Syrian war. It could have far-reaching military and political consequences, exacerbating tensions between the two superpowers, or at least between Russia and Turkey.

Early reports indicated that the Russian aircraft was downed by a sophisticated American-made shoulder-fired heat-seeking missile – a MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defence System) in military jargon.

That would mean that Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham has acquired such weapons recently from some source or other. The immediate question this raises is: where from?

There are two possible answers. Either Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham received these missiles directly from the US, as part of new plan to escalate the war and exert pressure on Russia – which along with its allies is emerging victorious from the conflict. Or the weapons were delivered to Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham by a third party, a regional player allied to the US. The four potential suspects here would be Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and/or Saudi Arabia.

The US administration, via a State Department spokesperson, was quick to deny having supplied such missiles to any Syrian opposition group. If we are to believe this denial, that would make the second possibility more plausible: that some other country decided to provide the MANPADS to Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham in an attempt to tilt the balance of power in the Idlib district in its favour. The Syrian army has been making major advances in the area with Russian air cover, retaking hundreds of villages as well as important strategic locations such as the Dhuhour airbase. The recovery of Idlib would spell the end for the Nusra Front, Ahrar ash-Sham and dozens of other armed factions allied to them.

The second possibility is indeed more plausible. For the past seven years, the armed Syrian opposition – including Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham and the Free Syrian Army (FSA)  — have been begging their American, Turkish and Arab sponsors to provide them with anti-aircraft missiles, just as they provided them with TOW anti-tank missiles, to shoot down Syrian and Russian warplanes. But these appeals fell on deaf ears. The Americans opposed the idea, for the simple reason that the US administration feared that such weapons could fall into the hands of extremists – i.e. the Islamic State (IS) organization — who could use them to target US warplanes or even civilian airliners. IS had already managed to appropriate huge quantities of military equipment that the US supplied to other groups, and recruit large numbers of US-trained and equipped Syrian opposition fighters into its ranks, along with the weapons provided to them.

The US administration tried to wreck the Russian-sponsored Syrian reconciliation conference in Sochi by persuading client opposition factions backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia to stay away from the gathering. It may well have given one of its allies in the region the task of delivering these missiles as part of a ‘Plan B’ to sabotage the Russian-backed political process by military means.

Whatever the case, the Russians’ reaction was angry.  On the military front, they quickly launched airstrikes against areas controlled by Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham and specifically the units that downed their plane, whose pilot was reportedly killed after he parachuted down safely and fought to the death to avoid being captured. Thirty five members of Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham were reportedly killed in these raids. On the security and intelligence front, while trying to recover the pilot’s body in coordination with Turkey, intensive investigations were launched to find out who provided Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham with this type of missile.

The shoulder-held Stinger missiles which the US supplied in large numbers to the Afghan mujahideen changed the course of the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. They led to the defeat of Soviet forces in the country and their withdrawal from the region. It is no exaggeration to say that these missiles were instrumental in causing the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union, the disintegration of its empire and the demise of its decrepit leadership.

Is Washington now trying to repeat that experience, using MANPADS to defeat the Russian Federation in Syria as it did the Soviet Union in Afghanistan?

It may be too early to venture an answer to that question. But we can be sure that Russia under Vladimir Putin is very different to the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev who was desperate to appease the West.

Putin controlled his anger and declined to retaliate militarily against Turkey when it shot down a similar Sukhoi jet ovar the Syrian border in November 2015. His policy of restraint earned him a fulsome apology from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who not only flew to Moscow to ask for forgiveness, but began disengaging his country from NATO and drawing closer to the Russian/Iranian camp. This had a positive impact in Syria, enabling government forces to recover Aleppo province with Turkish cooperation, establish four de-escalation zones, and reduce the level of fighting in other parts of the country with the exception of some enclaves, notably Idlib.

If a lone Russian pilot refused to surrender and fought to the death to avoid being captured, should we expect Putin to swallow this insult and accept defeat in the war in Syria?

Retribution for the downed plane and the blood of its pilot is likely to take the form of a Russian effort to speed up the recovery of Idlib Gvernorate in full and to destroy Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham and the factions allied to it. This would leave the US and its allies with two options: either to keep quiet, or to mount a military confrontation. The consequences in either case could be momentous.