Three weeks into Russia's bombing campaign, and Syrian rebels are adapting. They're also preparing to fight back, if only someone would arm them with much-needed anti-aircraft tech.
The rebel Free Syrian Army is dispersing its fighters and supplies to make them harder to hit, and expects to soon acquire portable anti-air missiles that, in the past, have proved capable of shooting down Moscow's warplanes.
The FSA's current air-defense tactics mostly involve firing heavy machine guns at attacking Syrian planes. They don't work very well against Russian jets. Where the depleted Syrian air force sends in one jet at a time, Russia sends in multiple planes to protect each other during bombing runs.
"Currently, the rebels cannot respond to air strikes even with anti-aircraft weaponry because the Russian warplanes fly several at a time," Capt. Khalid Al Asad, commander of a FSA unit in Homs Governorate in central Syria, told Motherboard.
Until they have better weapons—presumably including modern, shoulder-fired missiles—the rebels are focusing on making themselves harder to hit from the air. "We have started distributing ammunition to secret storage sites and relocating our headquarters from time to time," Al Asad said.
Russian veterans might recognize these tactics from the Soviet Union's bloody war with US-backed Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s and with Chechen separatists a decade later.
During the former conflict, the United States supplied the Afghan insurgents with shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and trained the Afghans to use the 33-pound, heat-seeking weapons. Mujahideen shot down hundreds of Soviet aircraft, helping to eventually drive the USSR out of Afghanistan.
"The Russian campaign in Syria resembles the Russian campaigns in Chechnya and Afghanistan in that the result will be the same," Al Asad said. But this time around, it probably won't be the Americans who supply the rebels with the means to destroy Russian warplanes.
The FSA says that the weapons the CIA has given them, reportedly including TOW anti-tank missiles, are inadequate for hitting back against Russian forces. "The weapons provided by the United States are defensive rather than offensive," Rashid Al Hourani, from the rebel Homs Liberation Movement, recently told The Daily Beast.
The CIA apparently fears that, if it arms FSA units with weapons powerful enough to shoot down Russian or Syrian aircraft, Al Qaeda or Islamic State could capture them to use against American or other Western civilian or military planes.
Nor is Saudi Arabia, otherwise a big supporter of the FSA, likely to provide anti-air missiles. "The Saudis have promised new and improved weapons," Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Motherboard. "But I doubt they will deliver weapons that will allow the rebels to shoot down Russian jets. Should they do that, US jets would also be vulnerable."
That leaves Qatar. According to The New York Times, in 2013 the tiny but wealthy Persian Gulf state supplied a small number of Chinese-made FN-6 shoulder-fired anti-air missiles to rebels in Syria, over the objections of the United States. The rebels used the missiles to shoot down several regime helicopters and warplanes. But some of the weapons also wound up in the hands of Islamic State, which has deployed them against US-backed government forces in Iraq.
There has been no evidence of subsequent supplies of missiles since that initial consignment two years ago, possibly indicating that Qatar ultimately bowed to US pressure to keep anti-aircraft weapons out of Syria.
Russia's entry into the war could change the Gulf state's calculations. Abdul Rahman, a commander in the FSA's Ahfad Omer battalion, told Voice of America that, as of late October, Qatar wasn't yet ready to defy the United States and ship more missiles to the rebels. But an unnamed US official also told Voice of America that, with Russian bombs raining down, it's only a matter of time before one of the rebels' sponsors cracks.
Whoever it may be, the FSA's Al Asad is ready and waiting. "I expect modern anti-aircraft weaponry soon," he told Motherboard.
And then when Russia attacks, the rebels could shoot back.
Top: Free Syrian Army fighter Abu Marwan uses binoculars to inspect nearby Syrian army positions in Areha, in northern Syria, October 2013. Photo: David Axe