Rebel videos show first U.S.-made rockets in Syria

LONDON Tue Apr 15, 2014 3:34pm EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - Online videos show Syrian rebels using what appear to be U.S. anti-tank rockets, weapons experts say, the first significant American-built armaments in the country's civil war.

They would signal a further internationalization of the conflict, with new rockets suspected from Russia and drones from Iran also spotted in the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

None of that equipment, however, is seen as enough to turn the tide of battle in a now broadly stalemated war, with Assad dominant in Syria's central cities and along the Mediterranean coast and the rebels in the interior north and east.

It was not possible to independently verify the authenticity of the videos or the supplier of the BGM-71 TOW anti-tank rockets shown in the videos. Some analysts suggested they might have been provided by another state such as Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, probably with Washington's acquiescence.

U.S. officials declined to discuss the rockets, which appeared in Syria around the same time Reuters reported that Washington had decided to proceed with plans to increase aid, including delivery of lower-level weaponry.

U.S. officials say privately there remain clear limits to American backing for the insurgency, given the widely dominant role played by Islamist militants. A proposal to supply MANPAD surface-to-air missiles was considered but rejected.

National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the Obama administration was giving support she did not define.

"The United States is committed to building the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition," she said in response to a query over the rocket videos.

"As we have consistently said, we are not going to detail every single type of our assistance," she said.

While the number of U.S. rockets seen remains small, reports of their presence are steadily spreading, analysts say.

"With U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles now seen in the hands of three groups in the north and south of Syria, it is safe to say this is important," said Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution Doha Centre and one of the first to identify the weapons.

The first three videos were posted on April 1 and 5, Lister said. While two have since been removed, one remains on YouTube.

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He posted clearer still images on a blog for Huffington Post last week.

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Several other arms experts and bloggers on the Syrian conflict have also reviewed the videos. They include Eliot Higgins, a Britain-based, self-taught arms and video specialist who blogs under the name "Brown Moses" and has emerged as one of the leading authorities on foreign firepower reaching Syria.

The rebel faction shown operating the U.S. missiles in the first videos, a relatively secular and moderate group called Harakat Hazm, declined comment. But an opposition activist based in southeastern Turkey who is a former member of Harakat Hazm said that they were provided by the Americans.

The Syrian activist, who identified himself as Samer Muhammad, said Harakat Hazm received 10 anti-tank missiles earlier this month near Aleppo and Idlib, two cities torn by heavy fighting near the northern border with Turkey.

He said that Harakat Hazm had launched five of those rockets to destroy four tanks and win a battle in the Idlib suburbs of Babulin and Salheiya, and this was the first time such U.S. arms had figured in Syria's fighting.

His information could not be confirmed independently.

SAUDI, QATARI SUPPLIES

More recent videos had shown the rockets in the hands of the Syrian Revolutionary Front and another group named Awliya wa Katalib al-Shaheed Ahmed al-Abdo, Lister said. Both are also seen as broadly moderate, in contrast with radical Islamists.

Western states have long been reluctant to make good on repeated talk of supplying weapons to Assad's foes, nervous of arms falling into the hands of jihadi militants or simply abetting more bloodshed in a conflict that has killed over 150,000 people and displaced millions over the past three years.

Lister said that if Washington were unwilling to supply TOW rockets itself, the most likely point of origin was Saudi Arabia which has thousands of anti-tank projectiles in its arsenal.

Under terms of the original sale, Riyadh would be obliged to tell Washington if it were transferring them to any third party.

"Considering the groups already seen with these missile systems and considering Saudis' already established reputation for providing weapons to moderate... groups, Saudi would seem the most likely candidate at this stage," Lister said.

The other major regional supporter of the rebels, Qatar, apparently do not hold such rockets in its regular military stores, analysts say, and may have bought Chinese weaponry from elsewhere, perhaps Sudan, for shipment to rebels last year.

Chinese-built HJ-8 anti-tank guided missiles remain a relatively common part of the rebel arsenal, according to Syria arms experts. HJ-8s first popped up largely in the hands of Islamist groups early last year, possibly coming from Qatar.

More recent shipments have been noticed in the hands of relatively secular insurgent factions and are believed by analysts to have been supplied by Saudi Arabia instead.

RUSSIAN ROCKETS, IRANIAN DRONES

Use of Chinese MANPAD anti-aircraft missiles by Islamist militants has dwindled in recent months, monitors say. Such missiles arrived last year, again believed to have come from Qatar, a development that particularly worried Western states.

"I suspect there's been two waves of Chinese weapons, the first from Qatar and the second from Saudi Arabia going to different groups," said "Brown Moses" blogger Higgins.

The United States and other Gulf Arab states have bemoaned Qatar's scattergun approach to arming rebel forces that has seen many weapons end up in the hands of fighters affiliated with al Qaeda linked and other radical Islamists. Qatari and Saudi officials will not discuss their Syria policy in detail.

Gulf states have also been alarmed by growing signs of support from Iran for Assad's military. The latest new piece of Iranian equipment to appear on the battlefield, an unmanned Shahed 129 drone photographed over Damascus, is said by Tehran to carry weapons as well as conduct surveillance.

Higgins said the other most significant development in Syrian conflict firepower this year had been the government's growing use of Russian-made BM-27 and BM-30 rocket launchers to deliver cluster munitions. While the former had long been known to be part of Assad's armories, the latter was not.

(This version of the story corrects the name Jessop to Lister in line 69.)

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington, Dasha Afanasieva in Istanbul and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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Comments (21)
Calfri wrote:
Maybe the spokeswoman is embarrassed to specify what aid, because it actually consists of MREs.

Apr 15, 2014 9:11am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Grinlsson wrote:
America and those who dreamed up these scenarios of giving these terrorists American aid should go back to high school for history lessons about World War 1. The Sunni Ottoman Empire was partitioned into secular Turkey, a Minority-Islamic Syria and a Minority_islamic-Christian coaltion governments to assure that the Sunnis never again rule a nation in that region after murdering over 7 million Balkan Christians and 1 million Armenian Christians.

The Sunnis saw a loop hole under democracy and called it the “Arab Spring” which Osama bin Laden’s dream for the Sunnis to take back the power they lost because 85% of the Middle East is Sunni. The Sunni rebels are not protecting the Christians in Syria, but rather it is the Syrian Government.

Saudi Arabia the schemer of 09/11/2001 and financing over jihad violence has found another loop hole to use the refugee process of Western secular and Christian value nations for mass population transfers from their expendible “provincial” wars. We must not forget Muslims believe in the conceptual “Ummah Islam” or Nation of Islam and their citizenship is called brotherhood. They come to colonize and not assimilate. I could go on and on to expose the Islamic ideology that should not be afforded religious protection until those persons who come under the disguise of “refugees” renounce their “brotherhood” to “Ummah Islam”, renounce their political goal to overthrow existing governments with “sharia law” and renounce the military power of “jihad” to attack a nation who affords them to come into the nation for the purpose of assimilation and enjoying the freedoms Western nations enjoy.

Saudi Arabia is quick to demand Western powers money, Western nations to take refugees, and Western powers to afford military intervention when all the while, the Saudis are funding the Sunnis, sending extremists to murder the non-Sunnis government, and yet afford no Syrian the right to be a refugee, do not use their own military, and do not give hardly any humanitarian aide, except extremists who kill, plunder, and demand extremist “pure” Islam that the Saudi royal family exports.

The United States should have attacked Saudi Arabia after 09/11/2001 and not Iraq – but then again, President Bush and associates received over $1.5 billion dollars in contracts to attack the wrong nations of Iraq and Afghanistan. If my fellow Americans continue to fall into the Saudi scheme and waste American arms, men, money and lives on a never ending violence perpetrated by some insane illiterate who proclaimed he was a prophet and that Islam would prevail with terror – will sure see an American future civil war against these very same people. Keep American arms and troops out of the Middle East and keep the Middle East out of America! This is my opinion and that is the way it is!

Apr 15, 2014 9:27am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Ci_Devant wrote:
The Syrian people will now pay for this proxy war between Russia, Iran on one hand and US, Saudis,etc on the other.
I wonder how many American will be on the airplane that gets shot down with the American made missiles that end up in al-Qeadas hands.

Apr 15, 2014 10:19am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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