Belmont Club

The TOW Missile in Syria

One of the more ambiguous symbols of the road not taken in Syria is the belated appearance of BGM-71 TOW missile in Free Syrian Army hands.  The weapons first came to the media’s attention in 2014. “Administration officials are keeping quiet about the TOW missiles. But Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council says the appearance of American anti-tank missiles in Syria seems to represent a shift in thinking for the Obama administration. Hof was US special envoy for Syria in 2012.”

“It’s a belated acknowledgment on the part of the United States that what’s left of the nationalist armed opposition inside Syria really needs some assistance,” Hof says.

In other words, the so-called moderate opposition forces in Syria that the Obama adminstration says it supports now have their backs against the wall. And the White House might be trying to throw them a lifeline. …

Amr al-Azm is an associate professor at Shawnee State University and he’s also a member of the Syrian opposition. He agrees that the appearance of US-made anti-tank weapons in Syria signals a shift in American policy. But he doubts that the Obama administration wants to help the rebels actually topple Bashar al-Assad’s government.

“For the US, the dilemma has always been how to bring the Assad regime to serious negotiations without damaging it to the point where it collapses,” Azm says. By most accounts, the current situation is not looking good for Syria’s rebels.

“I think the US administration is essentially trying to shift things back to the stalemated position,” Azm says.

Part of the reason for the administration’s reluctance to back a side is the uncertainty over who is really working for whom. Thomas Jocelyn of the Long War Journal says the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, claims it using the TOW missiles for itself and has released a number of videos showing them in action. The missiles are mind-bogglingly effective.

From an operational point of view the Obama administration may not care, one way or the other, who fires the TOW, for as long as Assad’s men are on the receiving end. Resupply is allegedly contingent on a valid video of their use, showing the destruction of a target, together with the spent casings of the round. This, so it is argued, obviates the danger that ISIS or al-Qaeda will hoard the missiles for themselves.  Once it is expended on Assad’s men, it is no further threat to anyone else.

The weapons appear to have played an important role in destroying Syrian Army and Hezbollah positions in the 2015 Jisr al-Shughur offensive, which appears to have kicked open the northern approaches to the Alawite homeland.

The video documentation required by the providers has also catapulted certain individual FSA rebels to YouTube stardom. One such person is Osama Abu Hamza, a gunner with the Free Syrian Army First Coastal Division, a long haired, clean shaven teen-idol type who is something of an artist with the BGM-71.

The Syrian army and Hezbollah must fear the TOW like the plague by now if the videos are any indication. They barrel their AFVs down roads full tilt, park their tanks, AAA guns and artillery pieces behind buildings, berms and obstructions all in a vain effort to escape it. But the TOW gets through.

Here’s Osama Abu Hamza hitting a pickup that’s maneuvering on the road, one of many such postings.  There’s even a 2014 TOW missile “greatest hits” compilation. From high ground they can shut down airbases and airports. It will be apparent to anyone just how dangerous these 1970s weapons are.

Yet for all the raw destructive power that America is capable of loaning out, it seems singularly unable to influence the human beings who must ultimately wield it. The best they can do is demand some sort of proof of how it is employed. The dilemma of the Obama administration in Syria was highlighted by the advance of ISIS on Palmyra, the site of the ancient capital of many empires.  Obama wants to remain in the game to stay a player.  But he dreads winning the pot, because first prize is a can of worms.  He may want Assad out, but not perhaps at the cost of helping destroy an ancient artifact.

The jihadist advance on the well-preserved remains came as an international conference was under way in Cairo to address destruction already wreaked by IS on the ancient sites of Nimrud and Hatra in Iraq.

Foreign affairs and antiquities officials from 11 Arab countries gathered in Egypt to condemn the jihadists’ demolition of Iraq’s heritage with sledgehammers, bulldozers and high explosives.

Abdulkarim said Syria’s antiquities officials would try to ensure the safety of artefacts found in Palmyra’s archaeological digs over the years and now housed in an adjacent museum.

‘We can protect the statues and artefacts, but we cannot protect the architecture, the temples,’ he said.
‘IS will just destroy it from the outside.’

Perhaps if the administration had led from the front, instead of bringing up the rear they could have directed events instead of reacting to them. Perhaps, perhaps, but no one knows for sure. As it is, all one can say for sure is that them TOWs can sure blow through the armor of Syrian tanks. But as for the hearts of men — that is as impenetrable as ever.


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