Two Syrian rebel militias judged moderate in Washington have in the last few days taken delivery and begun using – mostly in the Idlib region – the first advanced US weapon to be deployed in more than three years of civil war, DEBKAfile’s military sources reveal. It is the heavy anti-tank, optically-tracked, wire-guided BGM-71 TOW, which is capable of piercing 500mm thickness of Syrian tank armor and Syrian fortifications at a range of 4 kilometers. Armed with this weapon now are Brig-Gen. Abdul-Hila al Bashir, the new commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, which is headquartered at the Golan town of Quneitra, and Jamal Maarouf, head of the rebel Syrian Revolutionary Front fighting in the north.
The appearance of this advanced missile radically alters the balance of strength on the Syrian battlefield. It also denotes a striking change in Obama administration policy, which hitherto flatly resisted every demand to provide Syrian rebel groups with the heavy arms essential for them to have any chance of standing up to Bashar Assad’s superior military strength.
Our sources report that in the last few days, the new weapons are being airlifted in through two routes: the southeastern Turkish town of Diyarbakir on the Tigris, and the giant northern Saudi King Faisal Air Base at Tabuk near the Jordanian border.
US Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, arranged during his visit to Israel last week for the Netanyahu government to waive a standing agreement between the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel, whereby Saudi Air Force F-15 fighters are not stationed in Tabuk given its proximity to Israeli air space.
Dempsey explained that they were needed as air cover for the American transports flying the new weapons in via Saudi, and the convoys ferrying them onward from the Saudi base to their destination in southern Syria through Jordan. Stationed at the Tabuk air base too is a squadron of French fighter jets.
The route from Turkey to Syria runs through the “Kilis Corridor”, which is a narrow rebel-controlled strip 40 kilometers long from the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep up to the big Syrian town of Aleppo.
From his headquarters at Quneitra, opposite IDF positions on the Golan, Gen. al Bashir commands most of the Syrian forces fighting Bashar Assad’s army in the south.
Maarouf and his Syrian Revolutionary Front operate from a base in the southern Turkish town of Antakya.
In the last of his recent press interviews on April 2, Maarouf disclosed that some of the Front’s operations against the Syrian army were carried out in conjunction with al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusra.
Our military sources report that Syrian tank armor is not thick enough to withstand the BGM-71 TOW rockets. To save his tanks, Assad has shifted the brunt of his anti-rebel operation to heavy air force bombardments, which claim a heavy toll among civilians.
Washington is therefore confronted with its next decision about whether to give the rebels sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons as well.
According to our sources in Washington and Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov obtained from US Secretary of State John Kerry a commitment, when they met in Paris last week, not to supply the rebels with hand held anti-aircraft missiles.