By: Jacob Beeders
In response to the Syrian government and allied forces offensives last October that coincided with the onset of Russian airstrikes, armed groups opposing the government reported an increased uptick in the supply of weapons by their patrons. Most noteworthy was the provision of US-made tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (BGM-71 TOW) anti-tank missiles . The TOW anti-tank missile has become a major symbol of foreign support to the armed opposition. As an easily transportable, extremely accurate, and exceptionally potent weapons system, the TOW has helped a selection of rebel groups overcome a qualitative disadvantage in heavy weaponry vis-à-vis the Syrian Army.
The TOW missile is neither the only nor the most numerous weapons system the US and its allies have purportedly delivered to opposition groups, but it is likely the most advanced . While the TOW can be distinguished from other armaments due to its effectiveness, it also bears the distinction of being by far the most documented. Because of the clandestine nature of the CIA and allied programs in Syria, only a select few know the true extent of their country’s support. Built into the requirements of the CIA Train and Equip program is the provision that groups vetted to receive TOWs must record video confirmation of the use of each missile, as well as to return spent ammunition to their sponsors . With many of these videos being available on open sources (Youtube, Liveleak), a picture can emerge of the groups which have received them, the quantity of TOW use, and their effect on the battlefield .
Using available video evidence, observers have identified forty-two rebel groups have received TOW missiles since the beginning of 2014 . Of these groups, the majority either align with the Free Syrian Army, or are roughly affiliated with the political aims of the organization. The groups are active in almost every theatre of operation, barring the Kurdish majority regions. The TOWs likely do not directly originate from the United States, instead coming from Saudi Arabia, who purchased 15,000 missiles in 2013 . Conforming to the Arms Export Control Act, US authorities must approve the transfer of these missiles to a third party, meaning all recipients in theory possess some form of official American clearance . To receive missiles, groups must go through a CIA-run vetting process, with TOW operators receiving training in friendly neighboring countries .
TOWs have had a pronounced impact on the battlefield, with missiles causing significant and sustained destruction of Syrian Army vehicles. For example, in the first days of the October government offensive in northern Hama, reports indicated that TOWs destroyed over 15 vehicles in what rebels titled a ‘tank massacre’ . The attrition of vehicles, despite massive Russian aerial bombardment, helped to stall and ultimately reverse the Hama offensive, with rebels recapturing the strategic town of Morek on November 5th . TOWs are considered to have provided similar strategic advantages in the most successful rebel campaign of 2015, the April to June Idlib offensive, by targeting government supply lines and entrenched vehicles . While they have failed to stem recent government offensives, it appears their effect has been important enough to necessitate Russian deployment of T-90 tanks with advanced countermeasures to compensate for TOW use in key battlefields such as South Aleppo .
The tactical advantages produced by TOWs have also yielded larger strategic effects. With the rise in prominence of Islamist and Jihadist groups, particularly in Syria’s north, mainstream rebel groups have struggled to maintain relevancy. The ability of TOW-supplied groups to provide significant value in rebel operations has created a niche in which the rebels can persevere. TOW-supplied groups such as the First Coastal Division and the Knights of Justice Brigade have gained prominence targeting armored vehicles in larger, Islamist dominated offensives . Battlefield effectiveness has helped some mainstream rebel groups overcome their largest domestic criticism, that they are largely corrupt and ineffectual . This value has translated into tacit acceptance by hardline rebel factions, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, who in the past have targeted Western-backed groups .
Acceptance does come with drawbacks to Western sponsors, as TOW-operators facilitate directly and indirectly the advance of hardline and al-Qaeda affiliated groups. In some instances, such as 2014 the siege of Wadi al-Deif, Jabhat al-Nusra was able to dictate the employment of TOW missiles to their benefit, while allowing vetted-groups to maintain the veneer of independence . While missile supplies have created a key role for vetted-groups, it has not allowed many to overcome the strategic necessity of collaboration with powerful jihadist factions.
As with past programs supplying advanced arms to disparate rebel groups, concerns exist regarding whether TOWs could fall into the hand of extremist groups. Over the course of time that TOWs have been supplied, several recorded cases of the weapons falling into ISIS or al-Qaeda affiliates have emerged  . Most prominent was the yield of dozens of missiles from Jabhat al-Nusra’s capture of the TOW-supplied group Harakat Hazm’s main base of operations . Of the thousands of missiles provided in total, only several dozen have been documented in the hands of extremists, with most captured in inter-rebel fighting. In contrast, vast quantities of Russian-supplied Kornet, Fagot and Konkurs anti-tank missiles have made their way from Syrian government stocks to a variety of rebel groups, with several hundred captured in the 2013 raid on Yabroud alone . While continued TOW supplies runs the risk of unintended proliferation, it appears that the rigid system of documentation and control has limited that effect, especially when compared to similar weapons delivered to the government.
While the TOW missile is no silver bullet, it has been able to provide notable value on the battlefield, allowing the Western-backed opposition to counterbalance their shortcomings in armored vehicles. This benefit has allowed TOW-supplied groups to gain strategic leverage within a deeply fractured and often hostile collection of rebel factions. To the missile providers, the perceived success of the program will hinge on the ability of to guide the course of events in Syria in their favor. This may not depend on the increasingly tenuous prospect of victory on the battlefield; rather the US and its allies are pushing for a negotiated peace in Syria, with the onset of the Geneva Talks. The viability of these talks depends on the prevalence of ‘moderate’ groups open to political compromise, as well as the ability of weapons suppliers to exercise control over their clients. The TOW may then play a contributing role, propping up vetted ‘moderate’ groups, while giving missile-providers the ability to withhold crucial supplies in the event of non-compliance.
Jacob Beeders is a former Policy Fellow at the US House of Representatives and a MA Candidate in Intelligence and International Security, Department of War Studies at King’s College London.