A new video posted on YouTube earlier this week appears to show a Syrian rebel fighter launching a U.S.-made anti-tank missile at what is said to be an enemy tank, raising new questions about whether Washington has begun to supply powerful weapons to groups trying to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
If the TOW missile system were supplied by the United States -- and analysts cautioned Monday that its pedigree was unclear -- it would signal a dramatic change in the Obama administration's policy towards arming Syrian rebels. The U.S. government has been reluctant to supply heavy weapons such as anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles, which could be used to shoot down military or civilian aircraft, for fear they'll fall into the hands of religious extremists. The fighter in the video appears to be a member of Harakat Hazm, said two analysts, which is part of the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group generally seen as more moderate than some of the Islamist fighters who are also trying to overthrow Assad.
The video, which was uploaded to the site on Saturday, April 5, shows a man in a black sweater firing a TOW missile at what a narrator claims is a Syrian tank at a checkpoint in the village of Heesh, according to an analyst who translated the video from Arabic. In the video, the missile smashes into the target, which disappears in a cloud of smoke as unseen militants chant "Allahu akhbar," Arabic for "God is great." The TOW system was built by the United States and has been in used by the American military since the Vietnam War. It's also used by around three dozen other militaries around the world.
But the TOW missile has never shown up in the hands of rebel fighters in Syria, analysts said. That in and of itself marked a potential shift in the course of Syria's three-year old civil war. Regardless of who supplied the weapon, it could give the rebels a leg up against Syrian military tanks. A video uploaded on April 1 also appears to show a Free Syrian Army fighter from the same group firing a TOW missile.
Older videos have shown rebels using Chinese-made anti-tank missiles whose origins are likewise difficult to ascertain. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been two sources of weapons flowing to fighters in Syria. The CIA also has a base in Jordan where it has trained Syrian rebels. Reuters reported in January that the Congress has secretly approved funding to supply the rebels with small arms.
Rebel fighters sometimes film themselves firing heavy weapons, including portable missiles, to demonstrate that they're not falling into the hands of extremists, which could be an inducement for foreign countries to keep the arms flowing, said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian opposition.
"We have seen uptick in anti-tank missiles of various sorts being used by the Free Syrian Army," said Shahbandar, noting that the weapons have been effective against Syrian forces. "Whether this weapon is coming from the United States is difficult if not impossible to verify, because the U.S. works with regional partners," he said.
Eliot Higgins, a long-time chronicler of the Syrian civil war who blogs under the name Brown Moses, said the TOW in the video probably didn't come from the United States and was more likely taken by the rebels from Hezbollah forces, who've fought alongside Assad's troops in Syria's three-year old civil war.
But in March, administration officials said that the White House was considering allowing portable surface-to-air missiles, known as "manpads," to be shipped to rebel forces inside Syria. Those weapons would likely come from the Saudi government, which has them stockpiled but hasn't yet sent them to rebels because of U.S. opposition and concern that they'd fall into the hands of terrorists.
U.S. intelligence officials didn't immediately respond to requests for comment about the video and who may have supplied the TOW missile.
Screenshot via YouTube.com