Rebel Missiles Could End Up Being a Nightmare for Turkey

The use of anti-aircraft missiles by Syrian rebels could end up being a nightmare for Turkey if those weapons fall into the hands of terrorists, writes Ayca Atikoglu.

al-monitor Undated file photo of US airman aiming a Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile. Photo by REUTERS/USAF.

Topics covered

turkish defense policy, turkey, syrian, nato, afghanistan

Dec 7, 2012

Since none of the concerned groups can achieve any form of superiority, a high number of civilians have become victims of Syria’s 20 month-old war. Some countries, including Turkey, that want to overcome the political and military deadlock hope to add momentum to opposition operations by restricting Bashar al-Assad’s use of air power.

Pictures from the battlefield show that opposition fighters now have low-altitude air defense missiles, which have resulted in the downing of more regime planes and helicopters. Although this is good news for the opposition, it could well become a nightmare for other countries in the region.

Helicopters have played important roles wherever there is a civil war or an uprising. As has been done in Syria, helicopters are used to transport personnel, perform medical evacuations, protect convoys, provide reconnaissance, surveillance and fire support.

With their ability to reach target areas quickly, helicopters are strategic assets playing different roles at each phase of the rebellion. Their psychological input is as important as their military role; they provide multiplier effects and give a greater edge to the user.

Rebels usually start off with light weapons and do not seek to dominate areas militarily from the outset. They get sophisticated weapons as their areas of operation expand and they are made responsible for defending these areas, as well as the people and physical targets within them. Eventually, rebels become prime targets for planes and helicopters, which in turn force the opposition to seek better defenses.

Since they can’t have their own planes and helicopters, the rebels are trying to restrict the air operations of the government and render them ineffective. They can only do this by acquiring sophisticated missiles that are usually found in state arsenals.

There are two examples of this process in the recent past — one in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union and the other in Iraq against the United States. Both occupiers suffered heavy losses to the militant’s missiles and had to leave these countries despite their far superior military capabilities.

In 1986, the US began supplying the Afghani mujahideen with Stinger missiles, which can be fired by a single person with an 80% accuracy rate. Three years later, the Soviet army had to abandon Afghanistan after losing 114 planes and 331 helicopters. Behind this success story were the cheap and effective military supplies of the CIA, MI6 and the Israeli Mossad, as well as Saudi, Egyptian and Turkish intelligence services.

The other dreary story was 10 years ago in Iraq. When the US army entered Baghdad, Saddam Hussein — in what appeared to be an ambiguous move — gathered the missiles in his army’s arsenals and distributed them to Sunni resistance fighters. US soldiers woke up to the extent of their nightmare a little later when the fighters began to shoot down US helicopters and confined the Americans to highways — thus impairing their speed and mobility advantages.

It wasn’t long before the Americans became the victims of simple, cheap and effective roadside bombs. The US lost at least 120 helicopters and planes. Civilian and cargo aircraft became targets. Missiles cost the Americans plenty in money, time and prestige.

Turkey has also had its own nasty experience with missiles. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in the summer of 1997, shot down two of our helicopters over Hakkari province. It was revealed that these missiles were supplied jointly by Greek and Serbian intelligence services. There were only a few such weapons and they were delivered via the Lebanon-Syria-Northern Iraq transfer route.

Terror organizations are fast learners; their speed of learning is higher than that of states. Civil wars and uprisings produce lucrative black markets for weapons and missiles because there is no state or authority to monitor them. Syria is a good example: Nobody will be able to control what happens to the missiles which are now on the black market and the targets against which they will be aimed.

It will not be a surprise for the Syrian fighters armed with missiles to achieve military superiority over Assad. But, nobody can assure that the missiles — if fallen into the wrong hands — will not be a nightmare for Turkey. What is clear is that those who have been recommending transporting our soldiers killed on the roads in helicopters and planes instead of buses have to come up with alternative options.

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