Since 2013, the CIA has been training and equipping various moderate rebel elements in the Syrian civil war in an effort to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and force him to the negotiating table.
Among the range of munitions and supplies that the CIA has funneled to the various brigades of the Free Syrian Army and other moderate groups through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey are TOW anti-tank missiles.
Such anti-tank weaponry has also functioned as a game changer for the rebels, who generally lack the same sort of heavy weaponry, air support, and armor that the regime can muster.
TOWs are guided missiles that are capable of thoroughly damaging or destroying tanks, armored carriers, and other vehicles that the Assad regime might send into the field. And, unlike other projectiles used against armored targets, such as RPGs, TOW missiles can be used from a considerable distance.
These weapons have helped decimate Syrian armor and pushed a recent regime offensive against rebel-held territory to a standstill in reported "tank massacres."
For instance, on October 8, a Syrian armored offensive suffered massive casualties as, rebels armed "with US-made TOW missiles … [and] other guided rockets ... caused the destruction … of over 15 armored cars, vehicles, and tanks," according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.
What is striking is just how many CIA-vetted groups now exist throughout Syria receiving TOWs.
According to Syrian observer Hasan Mustafas, no fewer than 42 vetted groups now receive TOWs from a Saudi supply originally provided by the US. These weapons are funneled into Syria through Military Operations Command (MOC) posts in Turkey and Jordan that are co-operated by Western and local intelligence agencies.
The various groups are well documented due to the nature of TOW provisions. Saudi Arabia can not deliver the US-supplied TOWs without prior CIA approval. Additionally, Mustafas notes, the various vetted groups must apply to receive the TOWs. They are then provided with small batches of arms.
To continue receiving supplies, the vetted rebel groups must also record their use and return spent shells to the closest MOC to prove that they have not sold or shared arms with non-vetted rebel groups.
This arrangement ensures that the TOWs, unless seized by rival rebel groups, stay in the hands of CIA-approved militias. The groups that the CIA currently allows munitions to be shared with are:
13th Division (Forqat 13)
101st Division Infantry (Forqat 101 Masha’a)
Knights of Justice Brigade (Liwa’ Fursan al-Haqq)
Falcons of the Mountain Brigade (Liwa’ Suqour al-Jabal)
Grouping of the Falcons of Al-Ghab (Tajamuu Suqour al-Ghab)
1st Coastal Division (Forqat Awwal al-Sahli)
Gathering of Dignity (Tajammu al-Izza’)
Central Division (Al-Forqat al-Wasti)
46th Division (Forqat 46)
Sultan Murad Brigade (Liwa’ Sultan Murad)
Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, (Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki)
Mujahideen Army/Army of Holy Warriors (Jaish al-Mujahideen)
Revolutionaries of al-Sham Brigades (Kata’eb Thuwar al-Sham)
1st Regiment (Al-Fauj al-Awwal)
Ahmed al-Abdo Martyrs’ Force (Quwwat al-Shaheed Ahmad al-Abdo)
Al-Rahman Legion (Faylaq al-Rahman)
Martyrs of Islam Brigade (Liwa’ Shuhadah al-Islam)
Yarmouk Army (Jaish al-Yarmouk)
Lions of Sunnah Division (Forqat Usood al-Sunnah)
the 18th March Division (Forqat 18 Adhar)
Southern Tawhid Brigade (Liwa’ Tawhid al-Junoub)
Hamza Division (Forqat al-Hamza)
1st Artillery Regiment (Al-Fauj al-Awwal Madfa’a)
Syria Revolutionaries Front – Southern Sector (Jabhat Thuwar Souriya)
The First Corps (Faylaq al-Awwal)
The Dawn of Unity Division (Forqat Fajr al-Tawhid)
Salah al-Din Division (Forqat Salah al-Din)
Omari Brigades (Tajammu Alwiyat al-Omari)
Unity Battalions of Horan Brigade (Liwa’ Tawhid Kata’eb Horan)
Youth of Sunnah Brigade (Liwa’ Shabbab al-Sunnah)
Moataz Billah Brigade (Liwa’ Moataz Billah)
Sword of al-Sham Brigades (Alwiyat Saif al-Sham)
Dawn of Islam Division (Forqat Fajr al-Islam)
Supporters of Sunnah Brigade (Liwa’ Ansar al-Sunnah)
Horan Column Division (Forqat Amoud Horan)
Emigrants and Supporters Brigade (Liwa’ Muhajireen wal Ansar)
Military Council in Quneitra and the Golan
United Sham Front (Jabhat al-Sham Muwahidda)
69th Special Forces Division (Forqat 69 Quwwat al-Khassa)
11th Special Forces Division (Forqat 11 Quwwat al-Khassa)
Partisans of Islam Front (Jabhat Ansar al-Islam)
Al-Furqan Brigades (Alwiyat al-Furqan)
In response to the proliferation of TOW missiles, Russia has stepped up its bombing campaigns against the rebels. In particular, Moscow has targeted weapon caches and rebel positions in an effort to stem their ability to destroy Assad's armor.
"My conclusion is that the timing of [the Russian] intervention was driven by Assad really going critical," Rep. Jim Himes (D), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told the Associated Press.
Overall, the supply of TOWs is not a complete game changer in the Syrian civil war as weapons will not allow the rebls to completely overrun the Assad regime. However, they will help stall any push by Assad into rebel territory.
"Five hundred TOWs is not an inconsequential number," Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, told Business Insider recently.
"I don't think it will be a revolutionary event, but it will increase the attrition of regime armor, which will make it harder for the regime to conduct offensive operations."
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