AMMAN, Jordan -- Video has surfaced that appears to show antitank guided missiles in the hands of a rebel faction operating in southern Syria, the latest indication that sophisticated U.S. weaponry is making its way to antigovernment fighters in Syria.
The video, posted April 13 on YouTube, seems to depict a fighter from a group called the Omari Brigades firing a BGM-71 TOW missile at what appears to be a bunkered Syrian army tank.
Although other videos circulating on the Internet have shown rebel groups in northern Syria firing TOW missiles, this marks the first time the U.S.-made weapon has appeared publicly in the arsenal of insurgents in southern Syria, a key front close to the Jordanian border.
TOW missiles may also be showing up in central Syria. The Ahmad Al-Abdo Battalions, a rebel faction based in the mountainous Qalamoun region between Syria and Lebanon, has likewise uploaded videos of what appear to be TOW missiles being deployed in combat.
A commander of the Lions of Allah battalions who goes by the nickname Abu Yasser, said TOW missiles had recently become available to his group, which operates outside Damascus, the Syrian capital.
“I think a large shipment has arrived, because you can now buy it on the black market,” he said via Skype.
The accuracy of the various videos could not be authenticated. But Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, who monitors weapon flows to Syria, identified the arms in the video from southern Syria as TOW missiles.
The weapon is designed to pierce the kind of armor found on Russian tanks, a mainstay of the Syrian army’s ground operations. The missile’s unique optical sighting mechanism distinguishes it from other weapons in the rebel arsenal, such as the Chinese-made HJ-8 “Red Arrow” variant, Lister said.
It was not clear who might have supplied the TOW missiles, but the international black market and foreign nations are possible sources.
A number of U.S. allies, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have the missiles. The Pentagon last year approved a $1-billion sale of 15,000 TOW missiles to Saudi Arabia, a major backer of the Syrian opposition.
An Omari Brigades spokesperson, contacted via Skype, denied receipt of TOW missiles, insisting the weapons in the video were from the group’s stores of Red Arrow antitank missiles.
The Omari brigades were the first recipients in southern Syria of the Chinese-made Red Arrows, delivered as part of a Saudi-financed pipeline that stretched from Jordan as far as Croatia, according to reports in 2012.
The Omari faction is the southern affiliate of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, led by Jamal Maarouf, a construction worker turned rebel commander in Idlib province, in northern Syria. Maarouf has become the focal point for Western support because of his self-proclaimed moderate stance. Former comrades, however, have accused him of being a profiteer and warlord.
The delivery of the TOW system would be a potential boost to opposition fighters, who have pressed Western powers to supply them with more sophisticated arms, such as shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles. The Obama administration has balked, fearing the weapons could be turned against civilian aircraft.
Experts say antitank weapons alone are unlikely to alter the course of the 3-year-old war. The government of President Bashar Assad has been making steady gains against the U.S.-backed rebels, pushing insurgents back on several key fronts, including the suburbs of Damascus and in Homs province.
Bulos is a special correspondent.