The Obama administration has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.
But intelligence officials who closely track the flow of arms into Syria say rebels have acquired dozens of the devices in recent weeks and are using them with increasing effectiveness against Syrian helicopters and military jets.
At least some of the missiles were supplied by Qatar, which has provided most of the weapons smuggled to Syria’s rebels across the Turkish border, according to two Middle Eastern intelligence officials briefed on the matter. The officials, along with others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information.
More than 30,000 people have died and an estimated 400,000 refugees have fled Syria since the civil war began. The opposition forces, which have struggled against the superior arms and the air power of the Syrian military, have pleaded for heavier weapons from the international community.
Together with other antiaircraft weapons seized from Syrian army depots, the manpads — an acronym for man-portable air defense systems — provide the rebels with a powerful defense against the airstrikes that are considered critical to the regime’s defense.
While the missiles are seen as a potential game-changer in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, their arrival has evoked fear and dismay among Syria’s neighbors as well as Western countries, including the United States. In the hands of terrorists, the easily concealed missiles could be used to blow up commercial jets, weapons experts and intelligence officials say.
“It should be worrying to everyone,” said one of the Middle Eastern intelligence officials, whose government closely monitors events in Syria. “When Assad is finished, terrorists could end up with these, and commercial flights would be at risk.”
The renewed focus on antiaircraft missiles was prompted by video footage that appeared to show a Syrian helicopter and warplane being shot from the sky in separate incidents.
On Wednesday, opposition activists reported the downing of a military aircraft near the Turkish border, but the circumstances were unclear.
The helicopter that crashed Tuesday, which military experts described as a Russian-built Mi-8 transport helicopter, appeared to have been struck by a large projectile as it flew over a suburb of Aleppo, according to an amateur video posted by Syrian anti-government activists. Military experts who examined the video said the missile’s size, smoke trail and targeting were all consistent with a manpads attack.