Terrorism & Insurgency

Syrian insurgents acquire TOW missiles

07 April 2014
A still from one of the videos shows a TOW missile leaving the launcher. While it is unclear which version of the M220 system is being used, the guidance wire can be seen running from the missile to the launcher, showing it is not the new wireless variant. Source: Harakat Hazm

Syrian insurgents have released the first videos showing them using US-made M220-series TOW heavy anti-tank weapon systems, indicating that a state sponsor is supplying them with a new type of guided missile.

The three videos were uploaded to YouTube between 1 and 5 April by members of the moderate insurgent group Harakat Hazm. Two of these show TOWs being fired at targets near the town of Hish in the Idlib Governate; the third is of the missile system in the back of a pick-up truck.

Weighing nearly 80 kg without a thermal sight, the M220 series is comparatively heavy, which limits its tactical utility as an insurgent weapon, but its missiles have a longer range and more effective warheads than most contemporary anti-tank guided missile systems.

The system has been widely exported, including to Saudi Arabia and Turkey - which both support the Syrian opposition - and Iran, the Syrian government's main backer. The militaries of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the other two Gulf states widely believed to have supplied weapons to Syrian insurgents, use European anti-tank guided missiles (HOT and MILAN), rather than TOW.

The TOWs in the insurgent videos are unlikely to have been supplied to pro-government forces by Iran and then captured by the insurgents. They are in good condition, so almost certainly do not date back to the mid-1980s when thousands of US TOWs were illegally transferred to Iran, and have the standard day sight/tracker, so cannot be the Iranian-made Toophan version, which has a different sight.

The United States should have been informed about the delivery of TOWs to Syrian insurgents as recipients of its weaponry have to notify it about any subsequent transfers to third parties.

US officials have recently indicated that the existing CIA-led programme of targeted military assistance to the moderate opposition will be expanded. This will supposedly involve more training and non-lethal assistance instead of directly supplying insurgents with weapons.

The state sponsor behind the delivery of the TOWs is backing a group that appears to be part of a splinter faction of the Syrian Military Council (SMC), which was set up to channel foreign support to the comparatively moderate insurgents and co-ordinate their activities.

Harakat Hazm was established on 25 January 2014 by the merger of 12 small groups under the leadership of Bilal Atar (alias: Abu Abd-al-Sham). Salim Idris, the then chief of staff of the SMC, appeared in its formation video to give the group and its objectives a rare endorsement.

The group remained loyal to Idris after he was officially dismissed on 16 February. Harakat Hazm was not represented in the 19 February video in which 12 senior SMC commanders appeared alongside Idris to announce the formation of a rival military leadership. However, it distributed the video through its media channels and released its own statement of support for Idris on 17 February.

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