The Wall Street Journal had on Saturday a thoroughly reported story on US and allied efforts to arm the Syrian rebels.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have supplied Syrian rebel groups with a small number of advanced American antitank missiles for the first time in a pilot program that could lead to larger flows of sophisticated weaponry, people briefed on the effort said.
The new willingness to arm these rebels comes after the failure of U.S.-backed peace talks in January and recent regime gains on the battlefield. It also follows a reorganization of Western-backed fighters aimed at creating a more effective military force and increasing protection for Christian and other religious minorities—something of particular importance to Washington.
This shift is seen as a test of whether the U.S. can find a trustworthy rebel partner able to keep sophisticated weapons out of the hands of extremists, Saudi and Syrian opposition figures said. The U.S. has long feared that if it does supply advanced arms, the weapons will wind up with radical groups—some tied to al Qaeda—which have set up bases in opposition-held territory.
The principal thing that’s been revealed recently is a supply of BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire guided) anti-tank missiles. The TOW was the United States military’s third antitank missile (the first two were the MGM-21, an Americanized French SS-10, and the MGM-32, an Americanized French ENTAC), and it was the first effective ground and air-launched weapon with SACLOS (Semi-Automatic Command to Line Of Sight) guidance. What that means is that the gunner keeps the sight on target, and the missile computers fly the projectile to the aimpoint, correcting as necessary, or tracking and translating if the gunner moves the sight to follow a moving target. The previous generation, like the French missiles and the Soviet 9K11 Malyutka (NATO Reporting Name AT-3 Sagger), used Manual Command to Line Of Sight (MCLOS), meaning the gunner had to visually track both target and missile (using a bright flare on the missile) to the moment and point of impact. This required a lot of training, in the days before computerized simulators; the Egyptian success with Saggers in 1973 should stand as a correction to any of those imbeciles that say Arabs cannot be trained to be effective soldiers with high-tech weapons.
SACLOS was the high-tech of the day, but its day was 1966 or so; newer missiles are even more user-friendly and tactically deployable than the TOW, and the Syrian rebels have had some of those weapons — Russian ones captured from Syrian Arab Army (the Assad guys) and Hezbollah stocks. But they never had many of them. As we will see, the way the rebels are using the TOWs hints that they have quite a few of them.
The White House would neither confirm nor deny it had provided the TOW armor-piercing antitank systems, the first significant supply of sophisticated U.S. weapons systems to rebels. But U.S. officials did say they are working to bolster the rebels’ ability to fight the regime.
Rebels and their Saudi backers hope the Obama administration will be persuaded to ease its long-standing resistance to supplying advanced weaponry that could tip the balance in the grinding civil war—especially shoulder-fired missiles capable of bringing down planes.
Some of the TOWs provided to rebels since March are equipped with a complex, fingerprint-keyed security device that controls who can fire it, said Mustafa Alani, a senior security analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center who is regularly briefed by Saudi officials on security matters.
The entire story is good; read the whole thing. If you’re paywalled out, try this link via Google and let us know if you got in, or this one as a second resort (if you take the second, search link, the story you’re looking for is titled “Advanced US Weapons Flow to Syrian Rebels).
U.S. refusal to better arm the rebels has created strains with Saudi allies that President Barack Obama tried to mend on his recent visit to the kingdom. After the visit, senior administration officials said the two countries were collaborating more closely on material support for the rebels and the Central Intelligence Agency was looking at ways to expand its limited arming and training program based in Jordan.
A newly created moderate rebel group called Harakat Hazm said it had received about a dozen BGM-71 TOWs and was being trained on them by an unspecified allied country. It is the only group known to have received the weapons so far, though there may be others.
“To make it clear, our allies are only delivering these missiles to trusted groups that are moderate,” said one senior leader of Harakat Hazm. “The first step is showing that we can effectively use the TOWs, and hopefully the second one will be using antiaircraft missiles.”
Despite what the Journal and Harakat Hazzm (which is how they spell it) are saying, the BGM-71 is not necessarily the latest and greatest. It has been in production for fifty years in a multiplicity of versions, and was first used in combat in Vietnam in 1972, forty-two years ago.
And they’re certainly not using them efficiently or effectively. Here are two Harakat Hazzm videos which appear to show TOWs being wasted on buildings. We haven’t hit the books to see what generation of TOW these are.
And here’s another in a similar setting with a similar target:
Another Syrian opposition figure in the region confirmed the U.S., with Saudi assistance, supplied the TOW missiles.
Mr. Alani said the two countries oversaw the delivery through neighboring Jordan and Turkey to vetted rebels inside Syria. Rebels already had some types of recoilless rifles in their stocks, which can also be used against tanks and other targets. But U.S.-made TOWs are more reliable and accurate, opposition officials and experts say.
A senior Syrian opposition official in Washington who works closely with the Americans said the TOWs were part of a small, tailored program coordinated by U.S. and Saudi intelligence services to “test the waters” for a potentially larger arming effort down the road.
The official said the introduction of a small number of TOWs will have limited impact on the battlefield.
The main objective is to develop a relationship between vetted fighters and U.S. trainers that will give the Obama administration the confidence to increase supplies of sophisticated weaponry.
Harakat Hazzm (The word “harakat” in this context means “movement,” and “hazzm” is a word we do not know) has been around for only a few months. It was founded by Free Syrian Army General Selim Idriss on 26 January 2014, and appears to coordinate with the FSA’s Syrian Military Council. The FSA and SMC seem to bind together factions that are nationalist in political orientation and that range from the sort of salafists who can subordinate their religion to their nationalism, to secular nationalists. These factions fight the Assad loyalists and his Hezbollah reinforcements, but they also fight the two main (and a million fragmented) islamist/salafist factions.
(That said, there are people whose full-time job it is to track the fifty-something groups and factions in the Syrian rebellion. We’re glad we’re not that guy).
The U.S. has blocked Saudi Arabia from giving rebels Chinese-made man-portable air defense systems, known as Manpads.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia offered to give the opposition Manpads for the first time. But the weapons are still stored in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey because of U.S. opposition, according to Saudis and Syrian opposition figures.
“Basically, this is supposed to be the next step” in the eyes of rebels and their Saudi backers, Mr. Alani said of the hoped-for antiaircraft artillery.
The Chinese weapon in question is probably the HN-5, a copy of the original Strela (“Arrow”) missile, NATO reporting name SA-7 Grail. It also is a 1960s technology weapon, and unlike the TOW is unlikely to be very effective.
Senior administration officials said the White House remains opposed to providing rebels with Manpads. Antiaircraft and antitank weapons could help the rebels chip away at the regime’s two big advantages on the battlefield—air power and heavy armor. The regime has used its air force to devastating effect in the civil war—frequently dropping crude barrel-bombs packed with explosives on opposition neighborhoods and cities.
In hopes of reinvigorating Western support, more moderate rebels began this year openly battling increasingly powerful extremist groups in their midst and reorganized their ranks in hopes of forming more effective fighting forces.
Harakat Hazm was created in January out of the merger of smaller secular-leaning rebel groups in the north, the main opposition stronghold. It was set up to assuage U.S. concerns that the Western-backed and secular-leaning Free Syrian Army was too fractured to be effective and that rebels weren’t doing enough to protect religious minorities.
Did you get that? The Free Syrian Army was made up of too many factions, so the answer was to refractionate and produce a new faction. That’ll help! But it does seem to have kicked loose some supplies from Uncle Sam. Maybe because that’s the same way the USA reacted to discovering that 9/11 was largely the product of too many intelligence agencies not cooperating by creating several new ones to provide new layers of noncooperation.
The group is working closely with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, another large formation of several rebel brigades that turned their guns on the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in January. The Front was created in January to address U.S. criticism that rebels were too fragmented and that they were turning a blind eye to extremist groups. “The agreement is that the Syrian Revolutionaries and Hazm work together to get support from the international community but not step on each other,” said a member of the political opposition based in Turkey.
The official added that Hazm started to receive lethal and nonlethal aid from Saudi and the U.S. in March “because [rebels] are organizing like a proper army.”
The Western- and Gulf-backed Free Syrian Army has shaken up its ranks and strategy to try to reverse the regime’s consistent battlefield gains since last year.
“The U.S. wants pragmatic groups within the Free Syrian Army that can deal with a post-Assad Syria and secure Alawites and Christians,” said a member of the political opposition with ties to Harakat Hazm.
Syria’s conflict has strong sectarian undertones. President Assad is a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and his regime is dominated by the minority group while the opposition is made up largely of Syria’s Sunni majority. Many Christians have remained loyal to the regime, hoping it will protect them.
The fate of religious minorities has been a major concern of the U.S. Several extremist rebel groups were involved in massacres of Alawite villagers last year, and desecration of Christian and Alawite religious sites, according to human rights groups.
The opposition made a point of trying to secure the Christian village of Kassab in northern Syria this month after it was overrun by extremist groups, prompting a mass exodus of its population.
Opposition leader Ahmad Jarba visited the village earlier this month and vowed that the FSA wasn’t fighting a sectarian war.
The essential problem with the Syrian rebels remains that there are thousands of rebels organized (or disorganized, perhaps), into tens of thousands of groups. And some of the largest and most effective groups are arguably worse than “bad guy” Boy Assad. The US (and some foreign) MANPADS provided to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s were bought by the US and the UK in the 2000s for dollars on the penny, a stinging expenditure since USG and HMG provided the infernal things in the first place.
To see why we may be backing the wrong horse, consider the actions of religious minorities in Arab countries — who have been put to flight (or worse) everywhere democracy empowers the mob and overturns ruling strongmen. Syria’s Christians and middle-class Syrians — many of whom have had close ties to the US, generally through emigrant relatives living in New York and other large cities — have sided with the Assad regime, which, despite all the problems the US has with it politically and on CT policy, has been a bulwark against the sort of ethnic and sectarian cleansing that had broken out in Iraq and in every Arab Spring nation.
Profound ignorance of these nations at the top levels of the State Department, where political appointees have all been named with a view to domestic politics rather than international relations, is also a factor.
For example, as Syria has slid out of control and Ukraine has collapsed, the focus of US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power has been on trying to get the UN to compel its members to adopt no-texting-while-driving laws.