BEIRUT — Advanced American-made anti-tank missiles can be seen in numerous videos posted by Syrian rebel groups over the weekend, an indication that what experts thought was a limited trial program to arm moderate pro-Western units recently has been expanded.
The trial program was revealed early last month when videos posted by the Hazem Movement, a rebel group with ties to the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, showed a small number of TOW anti-tank missiles being fired at Syrian government targets. Experts who examined the videos concluded that the missiles likely had been supplied by Saudi Arabia after the United States approved transfer of the advanced weapons.
New video released over the weekend suggests the program has since been expanded to at least five rebel groups, most with ties to the FSA but some that are loyal to the Syrian Revolutionary Front, another secular rebel coalition. The videos purport to show combat operations in both Syria’s north near the border with Turkey and in its south, along the border with Jordan.
Besides a new video showing the Hazem Movement operating the system, videos of the TOW system in use were also posted by the FSA-aligned Southern Front, the Southern Front’s Omari Brigade, the FSA’s Martyr Ahmad Abdo Brigade, and the Syrian Revolutionary Front.
In one video, the Martyr Ahmad Abdo Brigade’s fighters could be seen missing what appeared to be a Syrian armored military vehicle as it sped down a road, while the Omari Brigade video showed what appeared to be a hit on a stationary Syrian tank within a construction site on a Syrian military base outside the southern city of Deraa.
A military attache in Beirut who works with both U.S. officials and Syrian rebel units said that he suspected the Hazem Movement was the first to have received training in the weapons and that other groups were added later. He said he believes the program remains relatively small. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position.
“It seems like a carefully vetted network of rebels with American training are getting these as part of a pilot program,” he said. “If none leak out to other more radical groups, I’d expect the program to be expanded.”
“I believe these missiles can still be counted in the low scores rather than the hundreds, at least at this stage,” he said.
American officials have expressed concern for years that any weapons given to rebel allies not fall into the hands of Syria’s increasingly powerful Islamist rebel groups, many of which have significant ties to al-Qaida and subscribe to its ideology. In January, the U.S. stopped deliveries of nonlethal aid and equipment to the Free Syrian Army after units affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaida-inspired group noted for its brutality, seized control of an FSA base that held American equipment.
Adding to the concerns is the close working relationship that so-called moderate rebels have developed with the Islamists. For example, Jamal Marouf, who commands the Syrian Revolutionary Front, which received a TOW system, told the British newspaper The Independent that he had no problem coordinating with the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s official Syrian franchise, and had even sent weapons to the group in the past.
“It’s clear that I’m not fighting against al-Qaida,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “This is a problem outside of Syria’s border, so it’s not our problem. I don’t have a problem with anyone who fights against the regime inside Syria.”
Marouf told the paper that he had dispatched “a lot of weapons” to rebels fighting in Yabroud, where Nusra battled government troops before abandoning the city in March.
In an email exchange, Charles Lister, who studies the Syrian rebels for the Brookings Centre in Doha, Qatar, said there is now little doubt that the provision of the missiles was expanding, despite whatever concerns there might be about them finding their way to radical groups.
“While there is no way yet to determine exactly how many TOWs have been sent into Syria, these American manufactured anti-tank guided missiles are now in the hands of at least five moderate rebel units, whose areas of operation stretch from Deraa in the south to Idlib and Aleppo in the north,” he said, noting it seemed likely the rebels had more missiles than the initial reports of two dozen indicated.
“All discernible recipients can be placed solidly within the moderate camp and all have their initial roots in organizations linked to Saudi Arabia. It seems very clear from all available video footage that those operating the TOWs have themselves received professional training in their use, particularly in terms of their clear and methodical loading and preparing of the system,” he said.
“All of this adds up to what looks to be a well-organized and planned-out weaponry provision program,” he said. “The more groups that continue to appear armed with TOWs, the more this apparent program could potentially symbolize a genuinely strategically significant development in the wider battle for Syria.”
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent.