Syrian Rebels’ Message to America — Send More Tank-Killing Missiles
Syrian rebels are using anti-tank missiles provided by the United States to strike back hard against government forces and their allies. Many of the missiles are American-made TOWs, one of the most commonly used anti-tank guided missiles, or ATGMs, in the world.
TOW stands for “tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missile” — a system where the gunner sights the weapon’s crosshairs on the target, fires the missile and then directs it in flight toward the target by control wires. Developed in the 1970s, TOWs provide devastating long-range, anti-tank firepower that is frequently deployed either as a tripod-mounted weapon or mounted on vehicles such as the U.S. Army’s Stryker.
The insurgents employed ATGMs beginning in 2014. The use of the missiles accelerated in response to the Russian Federation ramping up air attacks in support of the Syrian government headed by long-time ally Bashar Al Assad. More recently, rebels have used TOWs not only to slow Syrian army ground offenses, but to thwart attacks from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who have fought alongside government forces.
“The Iranians have their own weapons. The Iranian, Iraqi and Afghan militias come to Syria independently,” Muhammad Abu Yaman, a journalist in Damascus, told War Is Boring in an email interview. “They have their own operations rooms separate from the Syrian government, much like the Russian military in Syria.”
Above and at top — FSA TOW operators. FSA propaganda video captures
Saleh Abu Al Tow is a soldier in the Free Syrian Army and considers the weapon a game-changing device. His nom de guerre means “Father of the TOW,” a reference to his proficiency with the weapon. His message to the United States — send more.
“We possess these missiles, but the quantity is few rather than many,” Al Tow told War Is Boring in an email interview. “The TOW is very decisive in battles and has proven its effectiveness and worthiness in combat. The regime has suffered greatly from these missiles.”
“This type of rocket allows us to pierce tank armor, but the current battles, particularly after the Russian intervention, require us to counter aircraft,” he continued.
Nours Al Sharif, an Aleppo-based citizen journalist sympathetic to the rebel cause, echoed the sentiment. “The TOW has proved successful against tanks, but we need anti-aircraft weapons,” Al Sharif said. “We don’t have air cover. The Russian airstrikes are deadlier than tanks. The TOW is an effective weapon, but the airplanes are following a scorched-earth policy.”
FSA insurgents reportedly used the missiles at least once to destroy a helicopter on the ground. The helicopter in question was near the crash site of a Russian fighter jet shot down by Turkey on Nov. 24.
There is a complicated process that is supposed to ensure that only Syrian moderates involved in the civil war receive the missiles purchased or provided by the United States. The Central Intelligence Agency “vetts” groups that request the missiles and administrates their distribution, according to reports. However, one of the problems is the sheer number of groups involved with the war. Some estimates indicate there are at least 1,000 armed opposition groups in Syria, commanding as many as 100,000 insurgents.
The groups apply for missiles for specific operations and receive the missiles in small numbers once they are cleared. In an effort to prevent the groups from selling the weapons or giving them away, the rebels must record or photograph their use of the weapons, and return the spent rocket tubes to the supplier.
Above — a TOW missile in the hands of the Al Nusra Front. Propaganda video capture spotted by Bellingcat
Despite these safeguards, there are indications that terrorist groups such as the Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State have captured an unspecified number of TOWs. Nations sympathetic to the insurgent cause have also distributed the missiles to anti-government forces. Last year, Saudi Arabia purchased 500 TOW missiles that were delivered to the Free Syrian Army via Turkey. Qatar also supplied ATGMs to the rebels.
Based on photographs and YouTube video of the insurgents in action, there are perhaps a dozen different kinds of ATGMs in the hands of anti-government forces, all obtained from a variety of sources.
Some of the missiles identified include the Russian-made 9M113 Konkurs, 9K1152 Metis-M, 9M133 Kornet, Chinese-made HJ-8 and the French-German MILAN. Possible sources for the missiles include some from captured Syrian stockpiles, others from the black market, and still others from weapons caches captured in Iraq by the Islamic State and transferred to Syria.
No matter the source, ATGMs are an appropriate weapon for the Syrian battlefield. Syria possessed one of the largest tank forces in the world. The nation had up to 5,000 tanks at the outset — Soviet-era T-55, T-62 and T-72 main battle tanks — and nearly equal number of armored vehicles such as armored personnel carriers.
The nation augmented its armored forces during the 1980s and 1990s as part of a war-fighting strategy that included possible conflict with Israel, both an offensive and defensive reality for the nation since the 1970 Yom Kippur War. In addition, Russia sent seven T-90 tanks to Syria last September to help protect its airbase at Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. Thousands of Syrian tanks have been destroyed in the war.
No matter how much armor is on the battlefield, insurgents like those in the Free Syrian Army believe the missiles are a key to their success because of their effectiveness and ease of use.
“The TOW is an old weapon, but we are like skilled archers,” Al Tow noted. “We can handle it and prove the effectiveness of these missiles. I didn’t have education or take a course on this weapon, yet with the first shot you hit the target.”