A Saudi Arabian official has reportedly disclosed that the Sunni kingdom sent Syrian rebels a new batch of one of the most effective weapons for battling against the Assad regime this week.
BBC correspondent Frank Gardner tweeted that a Saudi official confirmed the delivery of 500 TOW anti-tank missiles to the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The FSA is currently being squeezed from all directions by the Syrian military, Russian airstrikes, and competition from jihadist fighters including ISIS.
The delivery of the TOW missiles — which have also been provided by the CIA — will increase the capabilities of the FSA against Syrian armour and it would enable them to more effectively battle against Assad’s recent military advances.
“Five hundred TOWs is not an inconsequential number,” Jeffrey White, a defence fellow at The Washington Institute, told Business Insider.
“I don’t think it will be a revolutionary event but it will increase the attrition of regime armour, which will make it harder for the regime to conduct offensive operations.”
TOW missiles, as Popular Mechanics notes, are guided missiles that could thoroughly damage tanks, armoured carriers, and over vehicles that the Assad regime might send into the field. And, unlike other used against armoured targets, such as RPGs, TOW missiles can be used from a considerable distance.
On Thursday, the FSA and other affiliated rebel units carried out a “tank massacre” after the Syrian government launched a large offensive backed by Russian airstrikes to retake northern portions of Hama province.
According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, the rebel forces armed “with US-made TOW missiles … [and] other guided rockets … caused the destruction … of over 15 armoured cars, vehicles, and tanks.”
White told Business Insider that the rolling hills and plains in Hama and Idlib are ideally suited to the use of TOWs. Assad’s armour has little protection or cover in the region and are ideal targets for the guided missiles.
The presence of these weapons has continued to cause extreme damage among Assad’s forces as his offensive has continued into Friday.
There’s no way Assad/Putin/Suleimani planned for the losses they’re taking in Hama right now. This is a debacle.
— Zeddonymous (@ZeddRebel) October 9, 2015
The Syrian offensive in Hama is aimed at dislodging rebels from the region while creating a larger buffer between rebel forces and Syria’s Alawite heartland in Latakia. The offensive has been backed by heavy Russian bombings but the offensive has so far failed to dislodge the rebels.
“There is an attempt by the regime to advance but the situation is under our control,” a rebel fighter involved in the counteroffensive against Assad’s forces told Reuters.
The reported injection of an additional 500 TOW missiles from Saudi Arabia will be a big boost to the rebels.
The missiles, however, do nothing to counter Russia’s continued airstrikes against rebel positions. And Russia is going after the TOW recipients.
In the past, Saudi Arabia and other US allies have suggested funelling man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADs) to the Syrian rebels to help shoot down Syrian, and now Russian, fighter jets. MANPADs are relatively easy to use shoulder launched missiles that could reach enemy aircraft.
However, the US has consistently opposed this idea, as the weapons could conceivably end up in the hands of al Qaeda or its affiliates and be used to down a civilian airliner (or a US military aircraft). Saudi Arabia may also be reluctant to provide these weapons due to the risk of directly antagonizing Moscow and the US.
“If the TOWs are primarily used against Assad armour that’s not the same as being used against Russian personnel,” White told Business Insider.
“If the Saudis were to supply the rebels with surface-to-air missiles, that would be different.”
Syria’s ground offensive against rebels started on Wednesday in its first close coordination with Russia. The offensive was aimed at four key regions across the provinces of Idlib, which is completely under rebel control, and the contested province of Hama.
The rebel’s cache of TOWs, and the resulting “tank massacres,” may also have the unintended consequence of forcing the Assad regime to change the nature of their offence.
“If this continues,” White warned, “expect to see the [Syrian] regime move away from using armour and start using higher firepower and air operations as a solution.”