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How did al Qaeda in Syria end up with anti-aircraft missiles?

After the terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a rebrand of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for the dramatic downing of a Russian Su-25 fighter jet over Idlib in northwest Syria on Saturday – the first Russian plane downed in Syria since 2015 – a number of analysts have published articles asking the obvious million dollar question: where did al-Qaeda get the portable anti-aircraft missile system used in the attack?

Once such article in Al-Monitor speculates on the following: “The three immediate questions that arose from the attack were how the downing was made possible, how the militants acquired the arms and whether there was a bigger-level player behind the attack.

And Al-Monitor seems to answer its own question in the following when listing the array of allied groups now operating under the leadership of al-Qaeda (HTS) – among them, groups previously “vetted” and approved to receive advanced weaponry by the CIA (specifically the TOW anti-tank missile): “Dozens of miles of Idlib province are contested among an array of groups, including the terrorist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a rebrand of Jabhat al-Nusra, which was affiliated with al-Qaeda; the Free Syrian Army; and its affiliate Jaish al-Nasr, which is considered a “moderate opposition group” that received weapons from the United States. Minutes after the downing of the Su-25, Alaa al-Hamwi, the military commander of Jaish al-Nasr’s aid defense battalion, claimed responsibility for the attack. Alaa argued that Jaish al-Nasr’s command supplied weapons to protect against the Russian air assault. Later, however, HTS claimed responsibility for downing the plane.

Though U.S. intelligence and defense officials have long denied that so-called “vetted” groups in Syria were recipients of anti-aircraft systems, rumors to the contrary have been persistent for years. The latest denial came immediately on the heels of Saturday’s Russian jet shoot down, which resulted in the death of the pilot on the ground as he came under fire by jihadists. Pentagon spokesman Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway told Russia’s TASS: “The United States has not provided any of its allied forces in Syria with anti-aircraft weapons.

The Pentagon spokesman further said, according to RT, that the US-led coalition is currently not engaged in any operations in the area where the jet was downed Saturday, indicating the coalition’s combat efforts are “geographically orientated on the current fight with Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS, ISIL) in eastern Syria.” Yet the statement clearly avoided any reference to past U.S. programs to arm so-called “moderates” – whether through the secretive CIA program or DoD program. And this is to say nothing of allies like Saudi Arabia who worked closely with U.S. intelligence for years in supplying weapons to anti-Assad militants.

But does anyone remember this? …from The Wall Street Journal all the way back in February of 2014, headlined Saudis Agree to Provide Syrian Rebels With Mobile Antiaircraft Missiles – U.S. Also Giving Fighters Millions of Dollars for Salaries: “Washington’s Arab allies, disappointed with Syria peace talks, have agreed to provide rebels there with more sophisticated weaponry, including shoulder-fired missiles that can take down jets, according to Western and Arab diplomats and opposition figures. Saudi Arabia has offered to give the opposition for the first time Chinese man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads, and antitank guided missiles from Russia, according to an Arab diplomat and several opposition figures with knowledge of the efforts. Saudi officials couldn’t be reached to comment. The U.S. has long opposed arming rebels with antiaircraft missiles for fear they could fall into the hands of extremists who might use them against the West or commercial airlines. The Saudis have held off supplying them in the past because of U.S. opposition.

And also this March 2014 report from U.S. government-funded Voice of America News: “Saudi Arabia reportedly is offering to provide Syrian rebels more sophisticated weapons, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that can take down fighter planes and helicopter gunships. They could be a game changer in the Syrian civil war. Known as MANPADS or man-portable air defense systems, the shoulder-fired missiles are a highly-effective weapon. Now, Saudi Arabia is offering to supply moderate rebels with these weapons. That could tip the balance on the battlefield. [...] President Barack Obama is said to be rethinking U.S. strategy toward Syria. No doubt arming the Syrian rebels will be on the agenda when Obama travels to Saudi Arabia in late March.

Meanwhile, in February 2018 there’s this to consider. al-Qaeda controls a strip of land (Idlib province) not far from the Mediterranean coast and has now clearly demonstrated the capability of shooting down aircraft.

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