Syrian rebels wielding US-made anti-tank missiles have become YouTube war heroes after a surge in successful attacks on forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Use of the BGM-71 TOW missiles – which cost $50,000 a piece – is up over 850% in October with the American-made weapons responsible for the destruction of scores of Syrian army tanks. Charles Lister, a Syrian expert at the Brookings Institute, said there had been 82 uses of the missiles as of 20 October up from 13 in September.
Dozens of videos of Free Syrian Army and other rebel TOW (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided) snipers have appeared on YouTube with many receiving hundreds of thousands of views and hero status. In one video, rebels are seen calmly arming the huge rocket launcher and firing it from a bombed-out building at a Syrian army tank, which is then seen in flames.
The Times reported on 30 October that the commanders who fire the missiles have also become celebrities on the ground in Syria and found themselves increasingly targeted by Assad's forces and Hezbollah. The most famous rocket sniper, Abu Omar, was killed on 25 October having personally destroyed over 150 tanks and other armoured vehicles, it said.
"Abu Omar was targeted because regime forces are following a new tactic of on the ground by observing TOW operators positions and locating and targeting them," Lieutenant Iyad Homsi, a friend of Abu Omar, said. It is believed that regime forces are hunting the TOW aces with Russian-made guided missiles.
Lister wrote earlier in October that the missiles first appeared in rebel hands in April 2014 and that since the CIA began coordinating the provision of the weapons to 40 "vetted" groups currently fighting Assad in Syria, rebel commanders have become increasing reliant on them. This has only intensified since Russia entered the war on the side of Assad and the US and Saudi Arabia pledged to up its support of the anti-Assad rebels.
"TOWs will destroy the Russians and their objectives, and we've received many more recently," Free Syrian Army 13th Division leader Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed told Lister in October, he wrote in an editorial for the Huffington Post.
The CIA have listed 40 groups that are permitted to be provided with the weapons but each use has to be logged to prevent them falling into the hands of extreme jihadi groups. The weapons are not replaced unless the rebels can provide a shell casing to prove that it was actually fired.
In November 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra, the largest rebel group in Syria that has not received US support due to its links with al-Qaeda, claimed to have captured a US TOW missile.
As the conflict continued in Syria, the US, Russia, Iran and European powers met on 30 October in Vienna to discuss the four-and-a-half year civil war. Iran and Russia currently back Assad while the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey back various rebel groups seeking to overthrow him.