After years of grinding civil war, the Syrian battlefield has seen a wide array of weapons employed by the rebel factions fighting Assad. From antiquated World War II rifles to homemade mortars, the rebels have used everything at their disposal, but recently the appearance of American anti-tank weapons in the northern town of Heesh has many wondering if the United States is finally about to supply the rebels with the heavy weapons, including shoulder fired MANPADs, needed to counter Assad’s mechanized and airborne forces.
In early April, YouTube videos showed American made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank rocket systems in the hands of Harakat Hazm, a group of moderate Syrian rebels. It’s not confirmed who provided the weapons but they could have come directly from the United States, which has been vague about the exact nature of its support for the rebels. Another possibility is that they reached Syria indirectly and were provided by a country like Saudi Arabia that supports anti-Assad forces in Syria and has its own stock of the weapons that it purchased from the U.S. in the past.
Powerful new weapons suddenly appearing this late in the conflict has generated discussion on whether or not the United States is preparing to send or sponsor the shipment of more advanced weapons into the hands of Syrian rebels. With diplomatic efforts stalled and Assad’s military continuing to use devastating weapons like homemade barrel bombs and, according to some reports, employing improvised chemical weapons, the introduction of advanced U.S. weapons could shift the dynamic in the war and give the rebels better odds.
Wednesday NPR reported that the CIA plans to send more arms and training to Syrian rebels and that 50 TOW missile systems had been sent to Harakat Hazam as a part of a “test” or pilot program. Yet, when asked specifically about the deal, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan kept her response vague. "As we have consistently said, we are not going to detail every single type of our assistance,” Meehan said.
While the TOW missile system is effective against ground targets it won’t help the rebels stop air attacks by Assad’s forces. Those advocating more direct assistance to the rebels have long called for arming the rebels with weapons that could be used against the Assad regime’s aircraft but the U.S. has been hesitant to send those systems. The biggest obstacle to arming the rebels with Man portable surface to air missile systems, or MANPADs as the anti-air missiles are known, is the fear that they could be used outside of Syria’s war in a terrorist attack against commercial aircraft. MANPADs have been around for decades, and became a household name after the CIA supplied millions of dollars worth to Afghan Mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in the 1980’s.
It’s the memory of supplying anti-air Stinger missiles to the Mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan that haunts many of the people who oppose sending similar weapons to the Syrian rebels. In Afghanistan, many of the Stingers given to Mujahedeen were lost in the din of the conflict and wound up in the hands of terrorist organizations after a CIA buyback program failed to regain them at the end of the war.
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