U.S. Weaponry Is Turning Syria Into Proxy War With Russia

nytimes.com

Alexander Kots / Komsomolskaya Pravda, via Associated
Press
By ANNE BARNARD and KARAM SHOUMALI
October 12, 2015
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Insurgent commanders say that since
Russia began air attacks in support of the Syrian
government, they are receiving for the first time bountiful
supplies of powerful American-made antitank missiles.
With the enhanced insurgent firepower and with Russia
steadily raising the number of airstrikes against the
government’s opponents, the Syrian conflict is edging
closer to an all-out proxy war between the United States
and Russia.
The increased levels of support have raised morale on both
sides of the conflict, broadening war aims and hardening
political positions, making a diplomatic settlement all the
more unlikely.
The American-made TOW antitank missiles began arriving
in the region in 2013, through a covert program run by the
United States, Saudi Arabia and other allies to help certain
C.I.A.-vetted insurgent groups battle the Syrian
The weapons are delivered to the field by American allies,
but the United States approves their destination. That
suggests that the newly steady battlefield supply has at
least tacit American approval, now that Russian air power is
backing President Bashar al-Assad.
“We get what we ask for in a very short time,” one
commander, Ahmad al-Saud, said in an interview. He added
that in just two days his group, Division 13, had destroyed
seven armored vehicles and tanks with seven TOWs: “Seven
out of seven.”
Spirits are rising on the government side as well. Weapons
and morale are “at a new level,” said an official with the
newly revived alliance of Russia, Iran and the Lebanese
Shiite militia Hezbollah that is fighting on the behalf of
Damascus.
Instead of a dim light at the end of a tunnel, the official
said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss
military matters, the alliance is seeking something closer to
victory. The aim now is to retake Syrian land that had been
given up for lost, take the ouster of Mr. Assad off the table
for good and reach a far more advantageous political
solution after establishing “new facts on the ground.”
But as Russian airstrikes against Syrian insurgents have
picked up, so have insurgent attacks, documented in online
videos. TOW missiles weave across fields, their red contrails
blazing, chasing Russian-made vehicles used by Syrian
government forces and blowing them up.
At least 34 such videos have been posted in just the last
five days from the battlefield in Hama and Idlib Provinces,
where TOWs have helped blunt the Syrian government’s
first ground offensive backed by Russian air power.
Fursan al Haq, a Syrian rebel group, released video of its fighters
firing a TOW at a government tank in northern Hama province on Oct.
7.
One official with a rebel group that is fighting in Hama
called the supply “carte blanche.”
“We can get as much as we need and whenever we need
them,” he said, asking not to be identified to avoid reprisals
from rival Islamist insurgents he has criticized. “Just fill in
the numbers.”
He said he believed Russia’s entry into the conflict had
made the difference.
“By bombing us, Russia is bombing the 13 ‘Friends of Syria’
countries,” he said, referring to the group of the United
States and its allies that called for the ouster of Mr. Assad
after his crackdown on political protests in 2011.
The C.I.A. program that delivered the TOWs (an acronym for
tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles) is
separate from — and significantly larger than — the failed
$500 million Pentagon program that was canceled last
week after it trained only a handful of fighters. That was
unsuccessful largely because few recruits would agree to its
goal of fighting only the militant Islamic State and not Mr.
Assad.
Rebel commanders scoffed when asked about reports of the
delivery of 500 TOWs from Saudi Arabia, saying it was an
insignificant number compared with what is available. Saudi
Arabia in 2013 ordered more than 13,000 of them. Given
that American weapons contracts require disclosure of the
“end user,” insurgents said they were being delivered with
Washington’s approval.
Equally graphic videos of new Russian firepower have been
embedded with them.
Russian attack helicopters swoop low over fields, seemingly
close enough to touch, then veer upward to unleash
barrages of rockets, flares and heavy machine-gun fire.
Explosions pepper distant villages, with smoke rising over
clusters of houses as narrators declare progress against
“terrorists.”
They appear to be using techniques honed in Afghanistan,
where the occupying Soviet Army fought insurgents who
were eventually supplied with antiaircraft missiles by the
United States. Some of those insurgents later began Al
Qaeda.
That specter hangs over American policy, and has kept
Syrian insurgents from receiving what they most want:
antiaircraft missiles to stop the government airstrikes that
have been one of the war’s largest killers of civilians.
Now, they want them to use on Russian warplanes as well.
Mr. Saud, of Division 13, said he and other commanders
renewed their requests for antiaircraft weapons 10 days
ago to the liaison officers they work with in an operations
center in Turkey.
“They told us they would deliver our requests to their
countries,” he said. “We understand that it is not an easy
decision to make when it comes to antiaircraft missiles or a
no-fly zone, especially now that Syrian airspace is filled with
jets from different countries.”
Both Russia and the United States have declared they are
fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, but
the two global powers support opposite sides in the battle
between Mr. Assad and the Syrians who rebelled against his
rule.
With air support from Russia, the government of Mr. Assad
Hama Provinces by insurgent groups that include both the
Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and American-backed units
calling themselves the Free Syrian Army — but not ISIS,
which is strong in northern and eastern Syria into Iraq but
has little presence in the west.
Instead, the advances there, which have posed the most
immediate threat to Mr. Assad, have come from a coalition
of Islamist insurgents called the Army of Conquest, which
includes the Nusra Front but opposes the Islamic State.
Advancing alongside the Islamist groups, and sometimes
aiding them, have been several of the relatively secular
groups, like the Free Syrian Army, which have gained new
prominence and status because of their access to the
TOWs.
Even in smaller quantities, the missiles played a major role
in the insurgent advances that eventually endangered Mr.
Assad’s rule. While that would seem like a welcome
development for United States policy makers, in practice it
presented another quandary, given that the Nusra Front
was among the groups benefiting from the enhanced
firepower.
It is a tactical alliance that Free Syrian Army commanders
describe as an uncomfortable marriage of necessity,
because they cannot operate without the consent of the
larger and stronger Nusra Front. But Mr. Assad and his
allies cite the arrangement as proof that there is little
difference between insurgent groups, calling them all
terrorists that are legitimate targets.
Either way, the newly empowered Free Syrian Army, long a
marginal player as Islamist groups have risen in influence,
is playing a more prominent role.
“Islamic groups have always labeled us as agents, infidels
and apostates because of our dealing with the West,” Mr.
Saud said. “But now they can see how effective we are
because of our dealing with the West.”
Several American-aided units have come under direct fire
by the Russians. But they claim to have held their territory,
with the help of TOW missiles, better than their Islamist
counterparts.
In a further shift of American aid to fighting groups already
operating inside Syria, American cargo planes on Sunday
dropped the first shipment of small-arms ammunition to
Syrian Arab fighters combating the Islamic State, a military
spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, said on Monday.
He declined to identify the groups or their locations, citing
operational security, but said American officials had
screened them. The likely recipient was a coalition of mixed
Arab and Kurdish groups that have been battling Islamic
State fighters in northeastern Syria alongside Kurdish
militias, now calling itself the Syrian Arab Coalition.
Syrian government troops advanced on Monday toward a
strategically important highway held by insurgents, taking
several villages in the central province of Hama with the
help of Russian airstrikes, according to Syrian and Russian
state news media, antigovernment activists and fighters.
But the front lines remained heavily contested, according to
activists, with each side making liberal use of its new
weapons.
Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, and Karam Shoumali
from Istanbul. Maher Samaan contributed reporting from
Beirut, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

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