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Syria rebel anti-tank missiles likely required US approval, experts say

U.S. soldiers shoot a BGM-71 tube-launched missile in Afghanistan, July 28, 2013. The same type of U.S.-made anti-tank missile has been spotted in Syrian rebel fighting video from 2014.

BEIRUT — The heavy anti-tank missiles recently shown in videos being fired by Western-backed Syrian rebels were manufactured in the United States, and their transfer to the rebels would have required direct American government approval, according to experts in international weapons deals.

That makes the videos the first hard evidence that the Obama administration has undertaken what may be a test of the rebels’ ability to adapt to advanced weaponry in a conflict that to date has been primarily a battle of outdated Soviet-era equipment.

The videos, posted on the Internet over the last three weeks by the Harakat Hazem rebel group, which is affiliated with the American-backed Supreme Military Council, shows rebels firing BGM-71 TOW missiles, a wire-guided anti-tank weapons system capable of piercing the armor on the Syrian military’s heaviest battle tank, the T-80.

Only three videos have been posted so far, suggesting that the number of missiles provided to date has been relatively few and that the availability of more missiles may depend on the rebels’ ability to use them and their success at documenting that they haven’t fallen into the hands of the al-Qaida-affiliated groups that have led most of the rebels’ more successful military operations.

“I was aware that the decision had been made to send better equipment through the Saudis but did not know they had arrived on the ground until the videos appeared,” said a Beirut-based Western military attache, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns. The attache, who has substantial experience transferring weapons to countries and groups, said the videos were probably intended to demonstrate to U.S. officials that the missiles had been used properly.

“If you want more, you have to show us what happened to the ones we gave you, and a video is the best way to handle that. I assume there’s a video for each firing and someone in Turkey or Jordan keeping a careful count,” he said.

The State Department declined to confirm that the Obama administration has agreed to the missile delivery. A State Department official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy, confirmed only that the United States is trying to improve the training of and weaponry available to rebel groups that the U.S. thinks are free of al-Qaida influence.

“The United States is committed to building the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition. As we have consistently said, we are not going to detail every single type of our assistance,” the official said via email.

As the Syrian rebel movement has grown increasingly Islamist in nature — four of the largest and most effective groups have ties to al-Qaida and have rejected Western-style democracy for Syria — early American promises of military training and equipment have failed to materialize because of fears that advanced weapons and training could end up in the hands of past and future American adversaries.

Analysts and arms control experts say it would be illegal for a country that bought the missile systems — the age, type and designations of the weapons strongly indicate that they were sold to Saudi Arabia, according to three analysts who examined the videos — to transfer them to a third party without modifying the so-called “end user” paperwork that’s used to track international arms sales.

“It’s too public and obvious where they would come from,” said the attache. “Nobody would dare make this transfer without legal approval from the U.S.”

Charles Lister, a researcher at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, agreed the weapons system almost certainly originated in the United States and that it was likely the transfer was done with U.S. approval.

“In terms of the TOWs, all the source material & evidence I have suggests these were provided by Saudi with U.S. knowledge and approval,” he said by email. “After all, according to the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, any U.S.-manufactured & sold weaponry transferred to a third party must receive the approval of the president before going forward.”

The model shown in the Syrian videos, Lister said, was a BGM-71E 3B. He said the markings visible in the video indicated that they were manufactured by Hughes Aircraft Co. in the early 1990s. “Hughes became Raytheon in 1997 and the missile still says manufactured by Hughes, so the missiles in question were surely manufactured between 1990-1997,” Lister wrote.

Previously, the rebels have deployed a limited number of Chinese- and Russian-made guided anti-tank systems. The TOW system represents a significant upgrade in armor-piercing capabilities and range over those other systems.

U.S. agreement to the transfer of more missiles would be a significant development for the rebels, said Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who’s a defense fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, a research center.

“It could be some kind of signal of increased U.S. military aid to the rebels and then there’s the actual military effect,” he said. “Any additional anti-tank missiles in the hands of the rebels are a benefit to the rebels. They know how to use them. They look to be pretty effective and well-trained in the TOWs. I’ve seen one claim of a 100 percent hit rate.”

It remains uncertain whether wider introduction of the TOWs will reverse what have been recent successes by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, whose troops have scored major gains in recent months, driving rebels from much of the mountainous regions along the border with Lebanon and pressing to recapture areas in Hama and Homs province.

Based on the videos, the missiles’ use has been confined to Latakia province, where rebels, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, launched an offensive last month that captured the Kasab border crossing with Turkey. The videos were shot in the early days of April.

The videos don’t identify the precise locations where the missiles were used but show them being fired at stationary defensive Syrian army positions. Those positions appear to be damaged in the ensuing explosions, though it’s impossible to know from the videos how great the destruction was.

None of the videos show the missiles being fired at moving tanks, a much more difficult shot.

Two of the videos, shot April 1 and April 5, remain on YouTube, but in recent days YouTube has removed the third without explanation.

The group that posted the videos, Harakat Hazem — whose name means Steadfast Group and may be a reference to a companion to the Prophet Muhammad — is a relatively recently formed rebel unit that came together after the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army splintered during a leadership dispute over the winter.

According to Aymenn Tamimi, who studies the Syrian conflict for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, Harakat Hazem is composed of remnants from the Free Syrian Army mainstay Farouk Brigade and 10 smaller fighting units. Its leaders remain close to Gen. Salim Idriss, whom the rebels’ Supreme Military Council dismissed as overall rebel commander in February. Idriss disputed his dismissal, however, and maintains influence over some rebel units.

“What becomes important with TOW militarily is how many they have. It’s the numbers,” said White, the former DIA analyst now at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy. “Is this a one-off delivery or is there a system now in which a selected number of TOWs are delivered to select rebel units?”

A steady supply of the missiles might help Harakat Hazem establish itself among potential rebel fighters as a valid alternative to the far greater number of groups that are outwardly Islamist or sympathetic to al-Qaida.

“What having TOWs does is signals to other groups that the groups that are getting them now have a good weapon and their capabilities have been enhanced,” White said. “Having good weapons increases the gravitas of a group. It gives them more prestige and allows them to attract new recruits.”

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Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.

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