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US Stinger Missiles vs. Russian Cluster Bombs in Syria?

Dangerous weapons proliferate as Syria proxy war continues

Common Dreams staff

Unexploded bomblets that activists report were cleared by FSA after October 16 strike on Eastern al-Buwayda. (Photo via Human Rights Wathc)

The government military forces of President Bashar al-Assad have continued and expanded their use of Russian-made cluster bombs, according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch released Wednesday.

The anti-government rebels, meanwhile, have come into the possession of US shoulder-fired Stinger missiles, reports Russian state news outlet RIA Novosti, citing accusations by Russian General Nikolai Makarov and saying that "reliable evidence" exists that fighters were already using such weapons against Assad forces.

"We have information that the rebels fighting the Syrian army have shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles of several states, including Stingers made in the United States," he said, as quoted by the Interfax news agency.

The US State Department has not responded to the accusation by Makarov, but the asserted policy of the Obama administration is that it is not providing weapons of any kind to the Free Syrian Army or any of the many militia groups now battling Assad forces. The Obama administration, however, has made public its program of offering non-weapon military support to rebels, such as communication equipment and intelligence.

Concerning charges about cluster bomb use, the Syrian government has denied previous reports it dropped cluster bombs on opposition strongholds, but Human Rights Watch says new evidence strongly confirms their use.

“Syria’s denial is meaningless as evidence mounts that cluster bombs are raining down on towns and villages,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch. “Syria’s air force is imposing a reign of terror on civilians in rebel-held areas across the country with cluster bombs and other explosive weapons dropped from aircraft.”

HRW's review of the markings on the bombs and the submunitions contained inside them, as well as a comparison with the Soviet manuals for the weapons, show that they were manufactured in the 1970s and early 1980s at Soviet state munitions factories. No country other than the Soviet Union is known to have produced the specific kind of bomblets identified, said the group.

Despite the denials of government officials on all sides, what's clear to many observers and analysts is that Syria—a key nation in the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East—has become a dangerous chessboard in which global powers like the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and others are carefully playing regional allies off one another as violence in Syria intensifies and the human toll rises daily.

"We most definitely have a proxy war in Syria," Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy told Reuters recently. "At this point of the conflict it is difficult not to say that the international dimension of the Syrian conflict precedes the domestic one."

"The Free Syrian army is only a slogan. There is no unity in these rebel groups," Kamel said. "To have an FSA you would need a command structure, and everybody following that command structure." Instead, he argued, "There are different groups supplied financially and militarily by different states and they are quasi-independent."

US foreign policy expert Phyllis Bennis, who has argued repeatedly against US intervention in Syria, said "The role of outside forces reinforcing either side’s military serves only to expand the fighting."

Amid reports of the influx of weaponry from outside countries like the US and Russia, Bennis' warning against escalation seemed prescient when she quoted non-violent Syrian activist Michel Kilo nearly two months ago: who said,  "If this destruction goes on and the ruling regime wins, it will rule over ruin and thus suffer a strategic defeat. If the opposition wins, it will inherit the country in an unmanageable condition. In any case, it is necessary to stop this violence, stop this bloodshed."

So far, with tens of thousands reported dead and hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing to neighboring countries, that is clearly not the course Syria is on.


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