It's not just the savagery of Isis that is shocking – its weaponry is too

The jihadists have taken equipment belonging to both the Syrian regime and America

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The photographs did not look very different  from so many other pieces of jihadist propaganda on the Internet, an armed masked fighter with accompanying slogans underneath about the victorious caliphate. But what set alarm bells ringing for Western military analysts is that the weapon being brandished appeared to be a state-of-the art anti-aircraft missile system which can overcome defences of modern warplanes.

Last weekend Isis stormed Tabqa airbase near Raqa after a prolonged siege and yesterday it produced another video ---- of the execution of 250 regime soldiers after they had been marched semi-naked into the desert.. But shocking as those images were, it is the capture of the Russian SA-24 Grinch manpads which is of immediate concern as Barack Obama tries to gather a coalition, including possibly Britain, to carry out air strikes on the Islamist extremists inside Syria.

The Syrian rebels had acquired a sizeable portion of their arsenal from the regime. Isis had also gained advanced American weapons, including artillery, armoured cars and even a few M1A1 Abrams main battlefield tanks from fleeing government forces in Iraq. But, until now, their anti-aircraft capabilities, although getting increasingly better, had to depend on more elderly stock.

“That is changing, as you would expect it to in such a fluid situation, and this, of course, will be taken into account in planning air operations in Syria” said an American diplomat who had been involved in monitoring Islamist groups in the Middle-East. “There is a need to assess the air-defence capabilities of Isis and also the capabilities of President Assad’s forces. But, I would like to stress that no decision has yet been made on whether to extend the operations in Iraq to Syria”.

Isis is known to have  Soviet, Polish and Bulgarian  ZU23-2 and ZU23-4 anti-aircraft guns  and American low altitude FIM92 Stinger manpads ( man-portable air defence system) and they have used GSHK  heavy-machine guns against the regime’s dwindling force of attack helicopters to great effect, although they are not of much use against high-flying fast jets. These have  been augmented, it is believed, by Chinese FN-6 manpads which can hit targets at 11,000 feet and SA-16 Gimlet manpads, a 16,000 feet,  which had been supplied in large quantities to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The SA-24 is a grade up; for a sophisticated piece of  equipment, it is not hugely difficult to operate. The specifications state that it is “designed for use against visible targets such as tactical aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missiles, head-on or receding, in the presence of background clutter and countermeasures. It features high effectiveness and increased range and is able to engage targets at night.”

The exact numbers of surface-to-air missile systems in the hands of Isis varies between 250 and 400, according to reports. However, the figure, say analysts, could be a lot higher : Assad regime had amassed up to 20,000 manpad units before the start of the revolution in 2011 and many arms depots had changed hands in the chaotic fighting which followed. Jabhat al-Nusra, the other large hardline Islamist group, which had, in the course of the war, been allied with and fought against Isis, is known to have its own stock of the weapons.

While President Obama ponders whether to take the war to Syria, there are warning about the pitfalls ahead. Eric Thompson, senior strategic analyst in the Centre for Naval Analysis in Virginia, said:: “Flying aircraft over Syria is very different than in Iraq; there are sophisticated air defences, some of them in the hands of Isis.” Robert Emerson, a British security analyst, added: “SA-24s, SA-16s and FN-6, all very capable kit. One has to bear in mind factors such as the batteries have very limited shelf-life and without the batteries they are of not of much use. But we’ve seen the rebels in Syria use improvised batteries quite effectively and Isis, we know, are very good at adapting and learning.”

The rebels had been receiving weapons funded by stats in the Gulf. In late 2012 and early last year, for example, no less than 3,000 tonnes of former Warsaw Pact stock were shifted from Croatia to Syria via Jordan. The consignment was bankrolled by the Saudis, but they and other backers of the opposition, such as Qatar, are supposed to have desisted from supplying anti-aircraft missiles at the insistence of the Americans. However, according to unconfirmed reports from the Middle-East, the Saudis have offered to supply some rebel groups, not Isis, with Chinese manpads.

Chinese state TV had a report about a regime helicopter being shot down by rebels using FN-6 without stating where it may have come from. The vast majority of manpads on sale in the black market is of Russian and east European manufacture.

America’s  Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice to US airlines ten days ago banning flights in Syrian airspace. It said that extremists were “ known to be equipped with a variety of anti-aircraft weapons that have had the capability to threaten civilian aircraft. Opposition groups have successfully shot down Syrian military aircraft using these weapon systems.”  Russia halted all civilian flights in April after officials in Moscow said a charter plane flying to Egypt was targeted by a missile over Syria but escaped damage.

Most of the regime’s aircraft losses have been helicopter-gunships, but warplanes have also been increasingly targeted. Ayman Waleed al-Nizar, a former air force officer who defected to the opposition and is now based in Turkey, said: “They haven’t been able to shoot down many planes, but there have been a lot more cases of missiles locking on to planes. The government used to tell us that they were being helped by foreign mercenaries, but they [the rebels] are just getting better and they have better missiles.

“We know that the government was getting a lot of new air-defence equipment, they were so secret we didn’t know the details. They can be used against the Americans if they attack in Syria, but in the future they may pass into the hands of Isis.”

Will President Obama go ahead with air strikes despite the dangers involved? Aaron David Miller, who advised six American Secretaries of State on the Middle-East, held: “ In Iraq, the US has several advantages that could make airstrikes effecrive, including reliable Kurdish allies, US trained Iraqi defence forces, US special operators on the ground. Syria has none of these.

“But, since Washington can't sit on the sidelines and wait for the results of a long-term approach, it'll do what it does best: find the middle ground. The battlefield will be expanded; airstrikes in Syria will happen. Does it all lack for strategy? Is it a prescription for mission creep? Yes and yes. But blowing up a bunch of very bad people feels good. And whether you approve or not, it's coming.”

READ MORE:
Isis terror threat: Leading British Muslims issue fatwa condemning terror group  

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