Armed groups in Syria have several hundred portable anti-aircraft missiles that could be diverted to destroy low-flying commercial planes, according to a report by a respected international research group. It cites the risk that the missiles could be smuggled out of Syria by terrorists.
The report was released hours after the US Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice on Monday to US airlines banning all flights in Syrian airspace. The agency said armed extremists were "known to be equipped with a variety of anti-aircraft weapons which have the capability to threaten civilian aircraft". It had previously warned against flights but not prohibited them.
Small Arms Survey, a Switzerland-based research organisation that analyses the global flow of weapons, published its claims yesterday. The report focuses on launchers and missiles known as "man-portable air defence systems" (Manpads), which are dangerous to planes flying at lower altitudes or ones taking off or landing.
The new report estimated that several hundred anti-aircraft missile systems were already in rebel arsenals. Mostly Russian and Chinese in origin, the weapons have been seized by Syrian opposition militias from government forces and smuggled in from nations sympathetic to the insurgents, the report said.
The most immediate danger was that anti-aircraft weapons, especially newer models, could easily be diverted to extremist groups operating outside Syria, it said. Porous borders and the presence in Iraq and other countries of groups affiliated with al-Qaeda heighten the danger that anti-aircraft weapons could spread to other trouble spots.
"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 from inside Syria.
Most commercial airlines have already halted flights over and into Syria during the past three years of conflict.