The high definition footage is almost too surreal to believe. A plain-clothed Syrian rebel sits on a wooden chair stacked with colourful pillows behind a mud wall, peering steadfast through the optical sights of a TOW anti-armour missile system (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided). Well over a kilometer in the distance, a group of about a dozen men—allegedly soldiers of the Syrian Army—casually congregate in the courtyard of a one-story brick building. It’s a fatal mistake. After carefully taking aim at this target of opportunity, the missile is released from its launch tube in a sudden and violent blast. The projectile takes a full 20 seconds to reach its oblivious recipients—its rocket flame clearly visible as it ominously streaks towards its targets. Morbid suspense gives way to an intense explosion as the group of men are instantly rendered to oblivion. Multiple cheers of “Allahu akbar!” follow as the missile operator and his cohorts celebrate a small victory in the grinding cauldron of the Syrian quagmire. This is the arena where life is cheap and winners and losers trade places with alarming regularity.
This grim episode—a mere sample of such videos where “YouTube warriors” from the Syrian opposition display their gruesome feats of combat in high definition—is but the latest manifestation of advanced foreign weapon systems proliferating the Syrian battlespace. The increasingly absurd confluence of state and non-state actors in Syria has turned the now-crowded arena into a weapons and capabilities proving ground for the East and West. Russia and the United States in particular have capitalized on the rare combinational opportunity of intersecting state interests and prolonged civil conflict to achieve supplementary military-oriented objectives. These include testing new weapon systems, training personnel in combat conditions, demonstrating military capabilities, gleaning valuable intelligence, and developing countermeasures. The game is played cautiously and methodically; each side learning from the actions of the other.
The TOW BGM-71 missile system—first developed by the US in the early 70s—has earned lethal notoriety in Syria, being supplied in the thousands to so-called “moderate” rebels by Saudi Arabia via Turkey. Saudi Arabia’s TOW missile arsenal is in turn generously and strategically supplied by the United States. You could call it a U.S.-sanctioned ‘TOW-missile diplomacy’ of sorts; the third-party provision of lethal aid to preferred clans of the Syrian opposition. Even if the CIA’s defunct rebel-training program is dead, the delivery of advanced U.S. munitions to rebel groups—though not a game-changer in and of itself—has given the rebels a much needed boost in morale; even helping to dislodge Bashar al-Assad’s embattled forces from government strongpoints.
In the propaganda war, the TOW’s integrated ‘kill cam’—which records missile use in high definition—has been brilliantly exploited by rebel groups to seed the internet with near-incessant footage of attacks on Assad’s Syrian Army. The TOW has become a symbol of U.S.-solidarity with rebel forces, and even has its own cult hero, the so-called “Abu-TOW” of the Free Syrian Army’s 1st Coastal Division. Abu-TOW’s success as a missile operator has been well-documented by the rebels; a late-2015 propaganda video of his exploits showcases the destruction of Syrian Army trucks, soldiers, tanks, and even Syrian Air Force jets refueling on the tarmac. Characters such as Abu-TOW constitute the more bizarre aspects of this war; the shadowy margins where mythical figures with clearly exaggerated exploits serve to bolster the thinning ranks of the opposition. Assad has champions of his own.
Russia’s direct military engagement in Syria has begun to address the increasing vulnerability of the Syria Army—which relies heavily on Soviet-era tanks and armoured vehicles. In late 2015, Russia allegedly equipped selected Syrian armoured units with one of its most advanced tanks, the T-90 MS ‘Tagil’. Designed with a ‘three-tiered protection system’ including explosive-reactive armour and active countermeasures—designed to intercept incoming anti-tank missiles such as the TOW—the T-90 MS’ operational debut in Syria serves two distinct purposes: it is bolstering the lethality of Assad’s armoured forces, while also allowing the Kremlin to field-test the T-90 MS’ combat effectiveness and survivability. While no T-90 MS losses have thus far been reported, a perfect storm is gathering on the horizon. Foreboding episodes which demonstrate the unintended consequences of TOW missile diplomacy and Russian military mingling in Syria clearly illustrate the potential for runaway escalations.
In late November, a TOW missile fired by Syrian rebels destroyed a Russian helicopter (killing a Russian marine) as it carried out a rescue mission for two pilots shot down by Turkey’s Air Force. The Turkmen rebel’s subsequent slaying of one of the airman—still in his parachute—during post-ejection descent further added insult to injury. The resultant maelstrom in Moscow and diplomatic fallout with Turkey ultimately led to the deployment of Russia’s most advanced air-defense system; the S-400 ‘Triumph.’ Capable of engaging 36 aerial targets simultaneously at an astounding range of 400 kilometers, the S-400’s positioning only 30 kilometers from Turkey’s border means that Russia could technically shoot down Turkish aircraft patrolling the Ankara capital region. This is a provocation Turkey clearly understands. The United States is also feeling the reverberations of this incident operationally. The S-400’s deployment has allegedly grounded U.S. aircraft in northern Syria after instances of random radar targeting were reported; a tactic commonly known as ‘painting’ a target.
The destruction of Russian military forces by U.S. munitions is far from inconsequential; even if US personnel are not the actual trigger-pullers. Such instances rekindle the embers of Russian Cold War memory; particularly Afghan Mujahideen shooting down Russian aircraft with CIA-supplied Stinger missiles during the Soviet-Afghan war. In contemporary terms, as surely as Russia is facing next-generation U.S. military hardware in Syria, it is developing cutting-edge countermeasures. Valuable lessons are being learned. These episodes represent the convergence of proxy and direct conflict between East and West. The possibility of ‘misunderstandings’ remains as high as ever.
As the United States and Russia are both waging limited air campaigns in Syria, both sides have embraced a carpe diem methodology in regards to battle-testing combat aircraft. Russia’s fourth-generation Su-34 strike fighter (NATO-designated ‘Fullback’) is making its combat debut bombing anti-Assad rebels, and is now—in response to Ankara’s shoot-down—routinely armed with air-to-air missiles. Russian aircrews operating legacy aircraft in Syrian airspace—including the Su-24M, Su-25SM, Su-30M, Mi-8, and Mi-24—are also gaining precious combat experience; a measure which will inevitably bring them closer in line with their NATO counterparts who’ve benefitted from near-continuous combat operations abroad since 9/11.
For the United States’ part, the deployment of its most capable air superiority fighter—the fifth-generation stealth F-22 ‘Raptor’—has afforded its pilots, who have traditionally been deployed to Pacific and Arctic air bases, a double incentive: gain practical experience in ground attack operations, and observe first-hand the combat capabilities of the Russian Air Force.
Russia has also taken the rarely-afforded opportunity of open-engagement in Syria to demonstrate its resurgent naval combat capabilities—and inadvertently, reliability deficiencies. In October, four surface vessels from Russia’s Caspian Sea fleet fired 26 cruise missiles at targets in Syria from nearly 1,500 kilometers away; an impressive, albeit unnecessary demonstration of the Kremlin’s conventional reach, even considering that four of the missiles embarrassingly malfunctioned, landing in Iran. These strikes were followed up in December by submarine-launched cruise missiles fired at targets throughout Syria (another first); this time from the Mediterranean. By all measures, these naval strikes were strategically insignificant; even militarily redundant—but that wasn’t the point. Russia’s naval strikes communicated to the West that Putin’s military modernization program has begun to bear fruit. As the operational opportunity was finally afforded, Russia was able to field-test newly developed weapon systems amidst combat conditions. Further capability demonstrations can be expected as the war drags on.
At this stage of the great powers game in Syria, the conflict increasingly resembles a malicious bazar of foreign military hardware; a proving ground where East and West face off in a carefully choreographed dress rehearsal for open hostilities against one another. It’s a dangerous game with a high potential for runaway escalations and misunderstandings. While restraint has prevailed thus far, it’s anyone’s guess how long the increasingly invested and entangled foreign powers—each committed to opposing operational objectives—will avoid direct clashes.
Link to video described in first paragraph (not for faint of heart):
Link to video of a TOW destroying a T-72 tank in Syria:
Adam Patillo is a M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, and is currently completing an internship with geopolitical forecasting firm Wikistrat. Adam completed his undergraduate studies at Simon Fraser University in International Relations, and is working towards a degree in Intelligence Analysis and Terrorism Studies from the American Military University. His special interests include Middle Eastern Security, especially as it pertains to Israel and its security environment.