WASHINGTON (AP) — Warnings from an international research group and the Federal Aviation Administration underscore the rising threat to commercial aircraft posed by hundreds of anti-aircraft weapons that are now in the arsenals of armed groups in Syria and could easily be diverted to extremist factions.
Armed groups opposing the Assad regime in Syria have already amassed an estimated several hundred portable anti-aircraft missiles that are highly mobile, difficult to track and accurate enough to destroy low-flying passenger planes, according to a new report by Small Arms Survey, a respected Switzerland-based research organization that analyzes the global flow of weapons.
The report was released Tuesday, hours after the Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice Monday to U.S. airlines banning all flights in Syrian airspace. The agency said armed extremists in Syria are "known to be equipped with a variety of anti-aircraft weapons which have the capability to threaten civilian aircraft." The agency had previously warned against flights over Syria, but had not prohibited them.
The separate warnings highlighted the growing concerns about the proliferation of anti-aircraft missiles in the wake of last month's lethal attack on a passenger jet flying over Ukraine. While the missile used to attack the Malaysia Airlines jet was a long-range surface-to-air missile, the new warnings focus on smaller launchers and missiles known as "man-portable air defense systems," or MANPADS, which target aircraft flying at lower altitudes, taking off or landing.
The Small Arms Survey report said that several hundred anti-aircraft missile systems in rebel arsenals are mostly Russian and Chinese in origin and were either seized from government forces or smuggled in from nations sympathetic to the insurgents. The most immediate danger comes from newer, sophisticated models that could easily be diverted to extremist groups outside Syria.
"In the hands of trained terrorists with global reach, even a few missiles pose a potentially catastrophic threat to commercial aviation," wrote Matthew Schroeder, the report's author. The analysis is based on government and media reports and video footage of anti-aircraft weapons posted online from inside Syria.
The extremist Islamic State group that has overrun much of northern and western Iraq also operates inside Syria. The militants, who have drawn fire from U.S. drones and fighter jets, recently posted an online propaganda video showing one fighter appearing to fire an older-model, Russian-made SA-7 anti-missile system.
Most American and other commercial airlines already have halted flights over and into Syria. Citing the threat of MANPADS strikes, the FAA warned American carriers in May 2013 to avoid Syrian airspace, a move heightened Monday to a total ban.
"Opposition groups have successfully shot down Syrian military aircraft using these anti-aircraft weapon systems during the course of the conflict," the FAA said in its "notice to airmen." The agency added that the presence of anti-aircraft weapons creates a "continuing significant potential threat to civil aviation operating in Syrian airspace."
FAA spokeswoman Laura J. Brown said the flight ban was based on an "updated assessment of the risk" as well as the lack of any requests from U.S. airlines to fly into Syrian airspace since the May 2013 warning.
Russia earlier halted all of its civilian flights to Syria in April after officials in Moscow said a Russian charter plane flying from Egypt into Syrian air space was targeted by two surface-to-air missiles but escaped damage.
The destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 last month was a clear signal that civilian aircraft could be exposed to anti-aircraft missiles at both high and low altitudes, Schroeder said. "The shoot-down on Flight MH17 underscores the importance of reining in the black market trade in all anti-aircraft missiles," he said.
The Malaysian jet was struck at 33,000 feet, well beyond the range of portable anti-aircraft missiles, killing all 298 people on board. U.S. officials said the Boeing 777 jet was struck by a long-range surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Russian separatists inside eastern Ukraine. Russia has denied any role in the attack.
Schroeder said eight different MANPADS models have turned up in Syria. At least two varieties, the Chinese-made FN-6 and the Russian SA-24 Grinch, are newer and more sophisticated models with longer ranges than older varieties — up to 20,000 feet altitude— and are harder to repel by aircraft electronic jamming systems. A third new model spotted inside Syria has yet to be identified, Schroeder said.
The report names Sudan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as likely sources for MANPADS systems smuggled to insurgents inside Syria but cautions there still is no certainty about their origins. Rebel groups have also boasted of seizing anti-aircraft launchers and missiles from Syrian forces.
U.S. officials have estimated the Syrian government had amassed as many as 20,000 MANPADS units before the civil war erupted in 2011.
Small Arms Survey report: http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/about-us/highlights/highlights-2014/ib09-fire-and-forget.html