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Lawmakers to Obama: Don't Supply Syrian Rebels with Stingers

More than two dozen U.S. lawmakers are urging President Barack Obama to refrain from supplying Syrian rebels with American-made shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.

The 27 members of Congress, led by Reps. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, and Ted Yoho, a Republican from Florida, on Tuesday sent a letter to the president "urging him to maintain his policy of refusing to transfer shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (MANPADS) to Syrian combatants," including those trained by the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency.

The missiles are primarily designed to target helicopters. One type is the FIM-92 Stinger, made by Raytheon Co., whose use against Soviet aircraft in Afghanistan during the 1980s was popularized by the book and movie, "Charlie Wilson's War."

"While we may have differing perspectives regarding the appropriate US response to the horrific violence in Syria, we agree that MANPADS would only lead to more violence, not only in Syria, but potentially around the world," Conyers said in a statement released Wednesday by his office.

The release cites an April 12 article in The Wall Street Journal by Adam Entous that reported the CIA and its partners in the region had prepared plans to arm moderate rebels in Syria with more potent weapons than the Soviet-era BM-21 "Grad" truck-mounted rocket launchers:

The agency's principal concern focuses on man-portable air-defense systems, known as Manpads. The CIA believes that rebels have obtained a small number of Manpads through illicit channels. Fearing these systems could fall into terrorists' hands for use against civilian aircraft, the spy agency’s goal now is to prevent more of them from slipping uncontrollably into the war zone, according to U.S. and intelligence officials in the region.

Coalition partners have proposed ways to mitigate the risk. They have suggested tinkering with the Manpads to limit how long their batteries would last or installing geographical sensors on the systems that would prevent them from being fired outside designated areas of Syria. But Washington has remained cool to the idea.

Syrian rebels have also reportedly acquired other U.S.-made weaponry.

A YouTube video published Feb. 26 appears to depict a Syrian rebel in Sheikh Aqil, a town near Aleppo, firing a BGM-71 TOW (for tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) missile at a T-90 tank, Russia’s main battle tank that entered service in the 1990s, presumably operated by Assad forces.

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U.S.-backed rebels in the country may have acquired both the older TOW, developed in the 1970s and also manufactured by Raytheon, as well as the newer FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile, developed in the 1990s and made by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin Corp.

In his letter, Conyers cites recent instances in which extremist organizations captured U.S.-supplied weaponry in Syria:

In late 2014, the headquarters of the CIA-backed militia Harakat Hazm -- one of the biggest recipients of U.S. arms including powerful TOW anti-armor missiles -- was overrun by Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s primary Syrian affiliate. Harakat Hazm fled its positions, leaving behind many of their weapons that were seized by al-Nusra. Last September, Syrian rebels vetted and trained by the United States handed over their equipment to the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, and just last month, Nusra attacked a Western-backed rebel faction, taking over bases and seizing U.S.-supplied weapons including antitank missiles.
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