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US-made missiles reportedly in hands of Islamist fighters in Syria



While the opposition Syrian National Coalition, headed by Ahmad Jarba, has been meeting with US officials this week in Washington in an effort to secure further support, including more funding and additional antitank and antiaircraft weapons, news from Syria indicates that some advanced US-made weapons are already being used in various Syrian provinces by rebel fighters.

Over the past few weeks, media reports have stressed that US officials have begun a "pilot program" of providing small quantities of advanced weapons, including TOW missiles, to vetted "moderate" groups, and specifically the Harakat Hazm, which fights in a newly formed coalition called the Southern Front. [See Threat Matrix, The shadowy flow of US weapons into Syria.]

As we at LWJ have pointed out, however, alliances and accommodations between the so-called 'moderate' rebel groups and the Islamists have made it very difficult for outside backers of the Syrian opposition to ensure that weapons and other aid provided does not end up in the hands of the Islamists, who dominate the battlefields. [See Threat Matrix, Southern Front tries to disassociate itself from Al Nusrah, which illustrates that an increasing number of reports from 'moderate' commanders claiming independence from Islamist groups such as Al Nusrah appear to be concocted in order to secure the provision of more weapons and funding from the West.]

Yesterday the opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that the Islamic Front, a large coalition of mainly Islamist fighting groups, was using US TOW missiles in clashes in Aleppo against the forces of President Bashar al Assad and allies. According to SOHR, the Islamic Front (which it refers to as "Islamic battalions") employed the weapons in Aleppo's Al Sheik Najjar area and near Al Brej, and possibly near the air force intelligence building in Al Zahraa district as well.

SOHR's report yesterday also noted that the Islamic Front was joined by the Al Nusrah Front and Jaysh al Muhajireen wal Ansar in some of the Aleppo clashes. Al Nusrah, which is al Qaeda's official Syrian affiliate, regularly pairs up with the Islamic Front in fighting throughout the country. The Jaysh al Muhajireen wal Ansar, or Emigrants' Army, is a Chechen-led unit of mainly non-Syrians that frequently spearheads the battles of the Islamist groups.

In another recent development illustrating the cooperation, if not collaboration, that exists between Islamist forces such as al Qaeda's Al Nusrah Front and the "moderate" forces linked to the Syrian National Coalition's Free Syrian Army, SOHR reported yesterday that 52 groups in the southern province of Deraa had agreed to allow Al Nusrah to establish checkpoints in their zones. They also agreed to give Al Nusrah "a respite" to decide the fate of a key FSA commander and several other commanders seized by the terrorist group a few days before.

Those 52 groups are likely the 50-odd units in the recently formed Southern Front, which, according to Aron Lund at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is probably in essence an organization created by foreign officials in order to present an acceptable face for the insurgency in the south.

So far this week the US has responded to the Syrian National Coalition's appeals by upgrading its US mission status from informal to formal, and by promising to give a further $27 million in nonlethal aid to the opposition, bringing the total so far to $278 million. In addition, Najib Al Ghadban, the SNC's representative in Washington, told Asharq Al-Awsat: "During Jarba's visit to Washington US officials informed opposition leaders that moderate rebel battalions will be provided with military support by the US administration."

As Syrian opposition elements and other allies press the US for further engagement, including the commitment of lethal weapons, in their cause, the appearance of US-supplied weapons in the hands of Islamist groups such as the Islamic Front, which regularly supports Al Nusrah, should be a major cause for concern.



READER COMMENTS: "US-made missiles reportedly in hands of Islamist fighters in Syria"

Posted by J. S. at May 6, 2014 5:55 PM ET:

Not very surprising. And soon in the hands of al-Qaeda (al-Nusrah) as well..
It's US administration choice (under high pressure from wahabis regimes in the region) to do so, they perfectly know they can't control at all these weapons and that sooner or later it will be used by the worste guys possible (imo it is already the case with these extreme salafis).

Everything can happens now with these guns. Why not seeing them in action on Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan targets, against Israelis vehicles (also if Hezbollah manage to capture some of them) or in the hands of ISIS, in Iraq (imagine if tomorrow Zawahiri's peace talks between Nusrah and ISIS succeed for example..).

Posted by Scott J at May 6, 2014 7:40 PM ET:

In September, 2001, the U.S. Congress declared war on Al Qaeda, calling it a Resolution Authorizing the Use of Force Against Terrorists. This state of war still exists.

The arming of these rebels is just barely skirting an act of treason, in my opinion. Our government can still claim they are not arming our avowed enemy because they are instead arming this so-called "moderate" rebel group, all the while knowing full well that they cannot control what happens to these weapons and knowing full well that the dominant armed group fighting the Syrian government is Al Qaeda, and knowing that anything that degrades the Syrian army helps Al Qaeda. It's treason with a cover story.

I see this as akin to desecrating the graves of the 9/11 victims and those of all of our brave troops who have fought them ever since.

I never thought I would see the day when I honestly thought our CIA and military commanders should just refuse to obey orders, but now I do.

Posted by Googled at May 6, 2014 7:45 PM ET:

Will we read of (the) a US Sam that brings down a civilian Airliner or will it fall under National Security to be Buried forever. Time WILL Tell.

Posted by Michael John at May 6, 2014 8:29 PM ET:

This may be the single worst decision made during the entire conflict. Evidently, Saudi Arabia convinced the Obama Administration that there would be controls even though their Wahhabists and Salafists were fighting in Syria. The Southern Front is a creation of the Saudis which is not even half as motivated as the other jihadist groups. Nothing good ever comes from Saudi involvement as the monarchy will do anything to prop itself. The Saudis are always eager to assist in spreading their twisted version of Founding Fathers overseas, even though they restrict them at home. It is sad that the Saudis were able to get their way on this issue.

It is just a matter of time before the extremists lay their hands on this hardware. Once it is captured, it could slip through the porous borders of Turkey and end up in unwanted locations. I have no doubt we have not heard the last of this transaction. Forget about the friendly skies. Armored vehicles guarding security installations are also at risk.

Posted by Frank S at May 6, 2014 8:56 PM ET:

At least CNN will have a lot more missing planes to look for, right?

Posted by Eric at May 7, 2014 12:02 AM ET:

The SOHR reports that units fighting with the Islamic Front used TOW missiles against regime units in the Al Sheik Najjar and Al Brej districts in Aleppo. Regardless of who pulled the trigger, this was the outcome the US signed up for when the weapons were supplied. It remains to be seen whether the fighters can counter the regime's armor effectively, and whether this turns the military situation in the rebels favor.

Seeing those TOW missiles in close proximity to members of the Islamic front is raising fears almost immediately that they may fall into the wrong hands, but that always figured to be a close call, even in the best of possible circumstances. We will have to wait and see if this was a positive contribution to the rebels fighting to oust Assad's regime, or if it was a huge mistake.

The Obama administration made this choice, and they have really laid it on the line. I am rooting for a good outcome. But there are some serious risks attached to this, and much will depend on the SNC leadership keeping their word.

Posted by IK at May 7, 2014 12:51 AM ET:

Impossible. We were assured that only "moderate, carefully screened and vetted" groups would recieve US weapons.

Sooo, according to Obama:

al Qaeda getting TOW missles for free, paid for by the US taxpayer - Good!

Be, buying an AR15 with my own money - Bad!

And some wonder why the readers of this blog despise Obama.

Posted by B at May 7, 2014 1:41 AM ET:

I'm not sure if the Islamic Front having TOWs is 100% accurate. I have not seen this anywhere, and Harakat Hazm (the first group to post proof of having TOWs) has a video up of them firing a TOW in Sheikh Najjar 3 days ago.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcqKobpAcJA

A more interesting note is the bunch of new groups now operating TOW missiles in recent days. Like Liwa al-Aadiyat (Lattakia, first proof 7 days ago) and Liwa Fursan al-Haq (Idlib, 2 days ago).

Posted by Lisa Lundquist at May 7, 2014 12:19 PM ET:

B: I noted in my April 27 article that Harakat Hazm, the much-heralded first recipient of US heavy weapons, is linked to the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, which shares weapons with Al Nusrah. In that regard, note that the video you mention showing Harakat using the TOW missiles indicates it took place in the Aleppo neighborhood of Sheikh Najjar three days ago; according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Al Nusrah and the Islamic Front were fighting in the vicinity at that time, and the Islamic Front is said by SOHR to have been using the TOW missiles. Sheikh Najjar is only a couple of miles from Aleppo Central prison, where Al Nusrah and the Islamic Front have been fighting for months.

Posted by Don at May 7, 2014 12:30 PM ET:

Homs just fell to Assad. This thing is over and Obama still give weapons to these Islamic terrorists! We should be infiltrating these groups to find their Saudi and Pakistani handlers and financiers to overcome the golden chain of financial support they receive. To give them these weapons in a covert fashion risks the lives of all people who support western democracy and freedom. As others have mentioned, the word Treason comes to mind.

Posted by Matt at May 7, 2014 12:49 PM ET:

I would like to remind everyone that the Syrian regime enabled Al Qaeda to kill Americans in Iraq and elsewhere. I do hate to see AQ receive any weapons but it might be in America's longer term interest to have the Syrian regime fall and then be able to go into Syria at any time to kill terrorists. Before we certainly were not openly attacking AQ targets in Syria because the regime was protecting them. Also, you better believe Russia intends to use Syria against us. It is better to have only terrorists in a territory we can engage them in than terrorists in a territory protected by a real military. Let's get rid of the protective layer and then we can attack at will. Israel is also going to be able to attack them more if there is no Syrian Regime.

Posted by Evan at May 8, 2014 12:36 AM ET:

The TOW is a super duper outdated missile system that's been around forever and was being fazed out when I served over 10 years ago. It is by no means a new or highly advanced missile system, it's a wire guided missile system that requires line of sight if I remember correctly, and also prohibitively expensive to produce. But Vietnam war era tech for sure, heck, this may be the most effective way of getting rid of useless stockpiles of old munitions like the TOW system, and let's be honest, as long as either Syrian Baathists, AQ; Syrian or otherwise or some Hezbollah agents are the ones down range of these weapons when theyre being used, who cares?!?
All the better if you ask me, I don't care who they give weapons to over there as long as there is a strict stipulation that they be used in Syria, for their intended purpose.

Posted by J. S. at May 8, 2014 11:05 AM ET:

Well Matt im sorry but i think that you misunderstand a bit the situation. Firstly dont forget that the Syrian governement was directly menaced by the US war on Iraq, as a part of the famous "axis of evil" proclaimed by your former president Georges Bush. And i think as well that Bashar al-Assad was very happy to get rid of alQaeda and other salafists elements on Syrian soil, which could directly threat the regime at middle-term. Especially when the probability of seeing them dying against US troops was pretty high, so no problem with their return on Syria territory. Now what if the Syrian regime fall ? Do you really think it is easier to fight a 70's/80's army (and knowing the very high probability that they will never attack you) with marked millitary objectives (those still alive after the civil war), than barely 100 000 al Qaeda and affiliated islamists/jihadists volatile elements ? Do you really think that they will stop on Syria and not spread to other countries, especially Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan ? (which are very weak militarily speaking and would probably collapse quite fast). Their objective is the califate... And do you really think that the US still have the money and the will to do another war on middle-east ? I dont trust SOHR which is a pro-FSA media outlet with a pro-rebel propaganda goal but even them acknowledge that islamists battalions (which include IF, JaN, and various jihadists groups) are almost the lone opposition left. Look at what happened with Ahmad al-Na'ma and what that famous "southern Front" is. Islamists/jihadists lead the fight in the South too, al Nusrah will soon be able to do whatever they want. And US gov indirectly helping them.

Posted by z at May 8, 2014 7:06 PM ET:

Can't believe it. This is not happening.That sword is gonna turn back on our necks. There is geopolitics and different financial interests between the biggest countries in the world. It is a competition,not hate, but the Islamists are not profiters. They hate us.

Posted by C at May 9, 2014 4:09 PM ET:

Nothing to see here, Now or Later, move along...
National Security Declared

Posted by Scott at May 10, 2014 6:31 AM ET:

Clearly this conflict has become a complete nightmare scenario. That said, as morally reprehensible as it is, I am inclined to tolerate and contain a secular dictator over radical salafists. Assad, like most secular dictators (North Korea excluded) is transactional and responds to existential threats. Salafi jihadists are neither and thus in my view, pose a much greater regional threat.

But politically come on, the President tried not to engage in this war because of the salafists threat and his opponents blasted him as being weak. So he issues a finding to try to provide lethal support to the shrinking secular and/or non-salafi opposition, and now his opponents call him a traitor. What hypocrisy!

Technically I totally agree with Evan's comments, we are talking TOWs. Who ever commented that airliners will be falling from the skies has no idea what they are talking about. Arm-chair operators, please go back to paintball before you hurt yourself. Anti-aircraft? Parked on the tarmac maybe, but please, the TOW is an anti-tank weapon designed in 1968, practically useless against an airborne target. And vs armored targets we aren't not taking AT4s, heck or even the much older but in the context of an insurgency, arguable more versatile CG-M2 or M3.

Posted by Ismail ALjazaeri at May 10, 2014 11:16 AM ET:

Well, I am not surprised at all if advanced weapons are already in terrorist gangs hands, because in fact it is as we speak.
The US have chosen to make same mistake they made in Afghanistan, when they supported the terrorist in chief, the Saudi citizen called Ben laden. Today, they are supporting a multitude of Ben ladens equipped with advanced weapons. Guess what!, the terrorist allies of the US are losing ground in Syria, and Syrian people is rejecting them. soon they will have to go somewhere else and they will need to make money to survive, guess what they are going to to do? of course blackmailing their former supporters in the US, France, UK.
They are bloody, immoral, savages and they will not hesitate to use the deadly weapons against civilians, including Americans targets.
The US made a huge mistake by listening to Qatari and Saudi syndicate of crimes to get a rid of secular regime in Damascus.
Assad is million times more tolerant than golf region's medieval Sheikhocracis

Posted by Richard at May 11, 2014 3:48 AM ET:

the worst possible basis for a foreign policy decision is "my enemy's enemy is my friend". That is what the US is doing here. It will have so many negative unintended consequences that presidents for the next 25 years will work to undue the damage. Obama is the stupidest politician ever to inhabit the WH and his foreign policy is based on treason.

I disagree on the TOW. It may be old but it is a formidable weapon against any hardened target. It has been improved over the past 40 years and takes out any tank and certainly destroys any building.

Posted by EDDIED. at May 12, 2014 8:25 PM ET:

I am just shocked that the US would do this.