TOW Missiles in Syria

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires a TOW missile.

American-made Tube-launched Optically-tracked Wire-guided (TOW) anti-tank guided missiles are a common sight in Syrian combat footage. The TOW missile is a large and powerful missile which requires a tripod and significant setup to fire. There are numerous videos of various rebel factions using TOWs to destroy Syrian Arab Army tanks, mostly T-55s, T-62s, and T-72s, of which the Syrian army possesses thousands.

Where do these TOW missiles come from? Some are from the United States, where the missile is made. The CIA has a program to train rebels with the system. The program delivered an unknown number of TOW missiles to the Free Syrian Army and other moderate rebel groups to aid in their fight against Assad. The CIA program should not be confused with another Pentagon-led program intended to help rebels fight ISIS. One provision of the TOW supply program requires the rebels to return expended missile canisters in exchange for the new missiles. However, it seems that plans to control the flow of the TOWs have not been entirely effective, as ISIS has gotten its hands on missiles intended for the rebels.

Like many weapon systems, the TOW is sold in large numbers to US-allied nations. Saudi Arabia, which recently purchased 13,000 TOW missiles from the US, has been instrumental in supplying the rebels. Recently, Saudi Arabia sent 500 TOW missiles to moderate Sunni rebel groups in Syria. TOWs have reportedly been causing severe damage to the forces of Assad, including the destruction of over 15 armored vehicles during a single offensive. One of the Assad regime’s main assets is its mechanized army with Soviet equipment; the TOWs are crucial in countering the armor and eroding the regime’s advantage.

The value of the TOWs has been evident. Despite being pummeled by airstrikes, Syrian rebels have been able to hold their ground against Assad’s recent offensives. FSA commanders attribute a portion of their successes to the TOW missiles, which they note can be used against vehicles as well as fortified positions and infantry formations.

What does the supply of TOWs to rebels mean for international relations and the conflict as a whole? For one, it points to the fact that the US government, the Saudis and indeed the majority of the West want Assad out, and are willing to pay for it. The TOW missiles are most useful against armored vehicles, and the main operator of such vehicles is the Assad regime, so the supply of TOWs is evidently carried out in hopes of stunting the regime’s progress. ISIS has been in possession of armored vehicles since it overran Iraqi forces, but many of these have been destroyed by Operation Inherent Resolve. If the missiles were intended for use against ISIS infantry, vehicular IEDs, and fighting positions, the US and Saudis would probably supply cheaper, lower end missiles such as the AT4.

The injection of TOWs into the already saturated and chaotic Syrian battlefield also makes the conflict look increasingly like a proxy war. Russia backs the Assad regime, the coalition backs the FSA and other moderate rebels. This creates increased regional tensions, as Russian-supplied equipment is now being destroyed by US-supplied TOW missiles, and both states are trying to give their side an edge. To experienced observers, the Soviet War in Afghanistan, where the CIA supplied Mujaheddin rebels with Stinger MANPADs, immediately comes to mind. In the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the Stingers ended up being a thorn in the USSR’s side, taking out a significant if often exaggerated number of Soviet helicopters and ground attack craft. The story of TOWs in Syria appears to be similar. They are unlikely to be a game changer, but they do offer the FSA a way to keep Assad’s armored forces on edge and stunt mechanized offensives. With current estimates generally citing losses of hundreds of Syrian vehicles to TOWs, it seems likely that the TOWs have been at least as effective against Assad’s forces as the Stinger was in Afghanistan, a much needed boost for the FSA. However, with TOWs slipping into the hands of ISIS and obliterating the tanks of Russian-backed Assad by the hundreds, there is also the potential for their deployment to backfire.

Examples of FSA TOW usage (WARNING GRAPHIC):

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Alex Hempel
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