Obama ups the ante in Syria with TOW missiles

Obama ups the ante in Syria with TOW missiles

While Obama has seemingly stood by his risk-averse approach to Middle East policy, the supply of TOW missiles to certain rebel factions has continued in response to Russia’s recent actions.

When it comes to President Obama and his administration, this much is clear: Obama and his overall team are quite astute when it comes to geopolitical risk and very much err on the side of risk aversion.

He intervened in Libya only when it was clear that others were willing to join in significant force and shoulder much of the burden. He only began major bombing against ISIS in Iraq after Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki had agreed to step down from power.

He has also avoided inserting himself in any dramatic way into the conflict in Ukraine and despite the advocacy of some on his team (including Hillary Clinton), Obama has so far refused to become a major backer of large numbers of Syrian rebels, fearing arming the wrong people, and instead opting generally for small, incremental steps that minimize risk and US involvement.

Agree or disagree, in many ways, Obama’s foreign policy is characterized by a “do no harm” mentality, or, to use a euphemistic version of the president’s exact words, “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

While some may think there is a boldness to unleashing the floodgates of supplies of TOW missiles so that they flow to America’s favored Syrian rebels, upon closer analysis this play fits squarely under Obama’s “do no harm” approach, and is a very shrewd step that maximizes payoff while minimizing risk.

To understand this, we need to look at what exactly a TOW missile is, at Russian and American history in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and at how Syria today differs from that situation.

First off, the TOW Weapon System (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wireless-guided), currently manufactured by Raytheon, is a portable ground based anti-tank/armor/vehicle missile system that packs quite a punch.

It can destroy any modern tank and is intended for long-range use, generally up to 3,750 meters, but variations can exceed this or be used to attack hardened, fortified bunkers.

It is also effective against infantry, including snipers. A small team can easily operate the system, it is devastatingly effective against enemy armor and vehicles, and it is capable of being mounted on and fired from vehicles and helicopters.

As for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. and American allies as diverse as Israel and Pakistan began to work together to supply anti-Soviet mujahideen rebels with U.S.-made portable Stinger anti-aircraft missile launchers.

The conventional U.S. view is that these missiles were a major factor in the Soviet decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Alan Kuperman skillfully tries to downplay the impact of the stingers as a non-factor. However, the idea that severely handicapping the Soviets’ greatest advantage in the war after shocking aircraft losses just before they made their decision to withdraw was not a major factor in that decision is highly improbable.

Now, let us jump to Syria today.

The U.S. government’s minor and tepid involvement in the Syrian Civil war has been convoluted and complicated. But since March of 2014, American-made TOW missiles have been delivered to some non-ISIS rebels with at least tacit U.S. support.

These TOW missiles have been a significant factor in the advances these rebel groups have made in recent months against Assad’s regime. With Assad’s forces retreating and teetering, Russia has just entered the war directly on Assad’s behalf, deploying aircraft and armored vehicles, including tanks, rocket launchers, and artillery, to bolster Assad’s regime.

Russia is already directly entering combat with air and artillery units to aid Assad, one of Putin’s key allies in the region, and has indicated it will be adding ground units, including infantry, into the fray.

Though Russia claims its main reason for entering the conflict is to combat ISIS, the vast majority of Russian airstrikes have been against non-ISIS and U.S.-backed rebels, many against positions from which TOW missiles have been fired against regime forces.

And just days after Russian strikes began, the U.S. embarrassingly announced it was ending its failed program to have the Pentagon train and equip anti-ISIS-rebels.

But now, quietly, and without any official announcement, over the last few days TOW missiles supplied by the U.S. to allies like Saudi Arabia have begun flowing directly into Syria at unprecedented levels and with much more vigor.

Previously demoralized rebels are now happy to tell reporters that they are receiving all the TOW missiles and launchers they can handle, with plenty of video proof emerging of rebels taking out regime tanks with TOWs to back up the reports.

Some rebels have even likened these TOWs’ significance to that of the Stingers the U.S. supplied in Afghanistan in 1980s.

Unlike Afghanistan, which saw mostly Afghan rebel mujahideen (and some foreign ones) fighting against Soviet forces and Soviet-equipped forces of the Soviet puppet Afghan government, Syria is much more complicated, with Western and Arab and Turkish planes in a U.S.-led coalition bombing ISIS regularly.

In light of the fact that ISIS has been successful in wresting U.S. weapons from U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria, could the weapons be turned against U.S. and its allies’ warplanes? Is this a wise move?

No and yes, respectively.

No, even if ISIS gets the TOWs, the U.S. is not at risk because these TOWs are designed to attack ground vehicles, not aircraft, and the U.S. has no ground forces in Syria.

The U.S. has also made it clear they have no plans to send large amounts of Stinger missiles into Syria, as it did in the 1980s. This means that the TOW missiles will be a huge threat to both Syrian and Russian ground forces, but pose no risk to U.S. aircraft, nor those of its allies.

This does not do anything to hurt Assad’s and Russia’s major advantage over the rebels, but it does hurt their next-best advantage, their heavy vehicles, a lot. Thus, Team Obama has punched back at Russia and Assad by aiding U.S. allies among the rebels at no risk to American pilots.

In doing so, Obama is staying true to his risk-averse approach to Syria and foreign policy in general. If anyone said that Assad would quickly overrun and crush the rebels with Russia’s rapid entry into the war, they spoke too soon.

Putin made a risky move that increased the risk to U.S. regional interests and partners, and Obama responded by increasing the risks attached to Putin’s move, not America’s.

Brian E. Frydenborg is a freelance analyst, writer, and consultant based in Amman, Jordan. You can reach on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter (where you can follow him at @bfry1981).

About Author

Brian Frydenborg

Brian E. Frydenborg is a freelancer based in Amman, Jordan, who earned his B.A. double-major in Politics and History at Washington and Lee University and holds an M.S. in Peace Operations awarded from the George Mason University School of Public Policy. His studies included abroad experiences in Japan, Liberia, and Israel/Palestine. He has had dozens of articles published across a variety of outlets, is one of the top bloggers for the Russian International Affairs Council, and has spent most of the last fifteen years studying, researching, and writing about (and occasionally practicing) politics, history, public policy, foreign policy, humanitarian aid, international development, and peace operations.