The sight of Syrian rebels blowing up Russian-made Syrian army tanks with advanced American missiles, captured in videos uploaded last week to YouTube, has brought a nominally covert CIA program into the spotlight. For all the attention on the Pentagon suspending its failed program to train and equip a Syrian rebel force to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the CIA’s two-year-old program to supply a handful of vetted rebel groups with TOW missiles, with Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s help, has been a surprising success, blunting a recent joint offensive by the Syrian army and newly arrived Russian forces near Hama and Idlib. The videos posted by groups aligned with the loosely defined Free Syrian Army show the TOW missiles skimming over scrubland and dirt roads before blasting into regime tanks.
And more of these weapons are on the way. According to the BBC’s Frank Gardner, citing a Saudi official, last week 500 more TOW missiles were delivered to Free Syrian Army rebels. A Saudi official had earlier told Gardner that the kingdom would increase its arms supplies to three rebel alliances in response to Russia’s intervention in Syria: Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest, a mostly Islamist alliance in northern Syria that notoriously includes Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s branch; the Free Syrian Army, whose definition and role have faded as the war has dragged on; and the Southern Front, a strong but somewhat overlooked alliance in southern Syria, affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, that includes some of the factions covertly armed by the CIA.
The TOWs' success suggests a few things about the state of Syria’s war and the actual impact of Russia’s intervention so far. First, it has added to the sense of a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia in Syria, or at least a “a proxy war by happenstance,” in the words of one expert quoted by The Washington Post’s Liz Sly. President Barack Obama has insisted on avoiding that, but it is hard to miss echoes of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when mujahideen used CIA-provided Stinger missiles to bring down Russian helicopters. And Moscow is fighting back: As Sly reported, Russia’s first air strikes last week targeted rebels armed with TOW missiles in northwestern Syria, near President Bashar al-Assad’s coastal stronghold around Latakia.