BMG-71 TOW ATGM Syrian Opposition groups in the Syrian Civil War
The BMG-71 TOW missile has become the defining weapon of the Syrian Civil War, and is often used by the layperson as a term synonymous with generic Anti-Tank Guided Missiles [ATGMs]. The TOW [sometimes transliterated as TAO in Arabic sources] acronym itself stands for: Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided. The BGM-71 TOW missiles are manufactured by American arms contractor Raytheon, and formerly Hughes Aircraft Company, with this latter company’s name still often appearing on the missile labels. Since Saudi Arabia completed a $1.1 Billion Foreign Military Sales [FMS] agreement with the United States for 15,000 TOW-2 missiles in April 2014, there have been roughly a thousand TOW 2 [BGM-71D] and TOW 2A [BGM-71E] strikes by the Syrian Opposition in the Syrian Civil War, with observers noting 790 TOW strikes between 2014–04–05 and 2016–01–01. Although there were rumors of unspecified ATGMs being supplied as early as 2013, the earliest Syrian Opposition group confirmed to have been supplied with TOW missiles was the now defunct Hazzm Movement, formerly active in North Aleppo and Idlib. One of Hazzm Movement’s first TOW strikes was uploaded on their official YouTube channel on 2014–04–15, with the exact same video footage freebooted on other channels as early as 2014–04–06.
Other early groups included Ahmad al-Ado Martyrs Brigade [one of the oldest FSA groups still active from Eastern Qalamoun], Liwa al-Adiyat [now merged with FSA 1st Coastal Division from Northern Latakia], and FSA Division 46 [now merged with FSA Army of Liberation]. Due the the decentralized nature of the Syrian Opposition and the flawed rules of YouTube, which enable Russian and pro-Assad regime internet trolls to “flag” unoffensive content in order to get it unjustly removed, the tracing and archiving of much of this early content has been very difficult with some of it possibly lost to history. Conversely, an early requirement of the TOW program that groups must film the strikes made with these missiles has ensured that the weapon has had far more exposure than it would have otherwise. This was presumably done to confirm the TOW missiles were used for their intended purpose, with subsequent unintended proliferation of this weapon being minimal and limited to one black-market sighting, a few isolated captures of TOWs by ISIS, and one capture of a TOW crew in North Latakia by the SAA.
While it appears to be the case that the filming of TOW strikes is no longer a global requirement for all groups, with an increasing number of TOW strikes being reported by media outlets such as El-Dorar Al-Shamia and Orient News and the associated footage never emerging, these early videos sometimes remain accessible as meticulously recorded historical documents. Regardless, the TOW strikes are made available when operations security allows it, as the often spectacular explosions and cook-offs of regime BMPs, tanks, artillery, machine guns and technicals serve a useful propaganda propose. Although night sights exist for the BGM-71 TOW, they do not seem to have been supplied to the Syrian Opposition as there have been no recorded night time TOW strikes and the early recording of TOW strikes rule may have played a factor in this — Fagot ATGM night strikes are common in the Syrian Civil War however. The BGM-71 components (minus the night sight and boresight collimator) have a combined weight of 205.625 kg, and therefore requires a team of several people to get into position, and both the TOW 2 and TOW 2A that the Syrian Opposition have access to have an identical range of 3,750 meters.
While the BGM-71 TOW is an American made ATGM, other types of ATGMs used by and in some cases supplied to the Syrian Opposition in the Syrian Civil War include:
- Chinese HJ-8
- Chinese HJ-73C
- French-German MILAN
- Russian 9M14 Malyutka [AT-3 Sagger]
- Russian 9K111 Fagot [AT-4 Spigot] (Vaguc in Arabic sources)
- Russian 9M113 Konkurs [AT-5 Spandrel]
- Russian 9K115 Metis [AT-7 Saxhorn]
- Russian 9M133 Kornet [AT-14 Spriggan]
The BGM-71 TOW is not to be confused with the identical looking Toophan made by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is an unlicensed, inferior version of the TOW.
The Russian Intervention on the side of the Assad regime has spurred the Syrian Opposition’s backers to expand the TOW missile program, with several inactive formerly TOW supplied groups becoming active again:
- Mujahdeen Army [new TOW strike 2016–05–11]
- Al-Safwah Islamic Battalions [new TOW strike 2016–05–11]
- Nour Al Dein Al Zenkey [new TOW strike 2016–05–08]
- Kataib Thuwar al-Sham [new TOW strike 2016–06–13]
Five groups have received TOWs for the first time:
- FSA Fastaqem Union [first TOW strike 2016–04–14]
- Levant Front [first TOW strike 2016–05–03]
- Sham Legion [“hidden TOW” strike first seen 2016–05–17]
- FSA Northern Thunder Brigade [TOW launcher spotted on social media 2016–06–18]
- FSA 2nd Coastal Division [first TOW strike 2016–07–06]
Northern Thunder Brigade appears to be the most recent TOW supplied group, and is a special case as this group is part of a new wave of North Aleppo Vetted Syrian Opposition [VSO] who have been trained and equipped in part by the US Department of Defense [DoD]. Important to keep in mind, other TOW groups have historically liaised with the CIA in terms of US agencies under the covert “Timber Sycamore” program, and this CIA/DoD lack of coordination and differing outlook is a major complicating factor with regards to foreign backing of the Syrian Opposition and the associated TOW program. Although a small and new group confined to the Mare’ and Turkish border pocket in North Aleppo, this development regarding Northern Thunder Brigade is significant as a potential sign of things to come vis-à-vis other VSO groups such as Brigade 51, Al Hamza Division, Al Moutasem Briagde and even US backed groups in other parts of Syria such as the New Syrian Army in Homs/Deir Ezzor.
Certain “independent FSA aligned groups” not touched upon yet deserve special note. Furqan Brigades and Jabhat Ansar al-Islam collaborate very closely with the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army in Daraa and Quneitra (Furqan Brigades have been called “Free Syrian Army” by the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, while Jabhat Ansar al-Islam have recently displayed a Southern Front banner in a promotional video), yet have not been supplied with TOWs of late with no known TOW strikes from these groups in 2016. Kataib Thuwar has recently had a spate of TOW strikes following a period of inactivity, after having left Levant Front. Al Rahman Corps has only ever conducted a single TOW strike, and is isolated from supply lines in Eastern Ghouta—recent Byzantine political intrigues in Washington D.C. relating to Al Rahman Corps and allies clashing with Jaysh al-Islam have led to rumors that they are cut off from the foreign led Military Operations Center [MOC] that coordinates Syrian Opposition groups in Southern Syria.
The most controversial TOW recipient is Sham Legion. Often considered FSA in the broadest sense of the term, Sham Legion have joined the hard-line Islamist coalition Jaysh al-Fatah [JaF]. Further complicating this issue, Sham Legion have adopted a strange method of filming their TOW strikes, refusing to openly show the TOW launcher and only showing the missile en route to the target in their YouTube videos. Upon watching certain recent ATGM videos released by Sham Legion, the experienced ATGM observer is able to distinguish the tell tale signs that the ATGM in question is a TOW — the distinctive “click” as the missile is triggered to launch, the familiar noise of the TOW missile in-flight that is significantly different to the other common ATGMs in the conflict, and the lack of smoke or a “spiral” missile pattern are all giveaways. Furthermore, the only ATGM weapon system that even vaguely matches with that depicted in the “hidden” videos, the Russian Kornet [NATO reporting name AT-14 Spriggan], is always shown at the start of similar Sham Front ATGM videos with the launcher and operator visible.
Levant Front should be mentioned at this point as it has recently gained access to TOWs, after drifting from a more Islamist orientation to Nationalist symbolism such as prominently displaying the Syrian Independence flag in their promotional Tweets and videos. It is an interesting case of a major Syrian Opposition group successfully managing to re-orientate its politics in order to gain battlefield changing weaponry. After a spate of highly successful TOW strikes beginning on 2016–05–03 and including a memorable strike on a T-90 MBT, Levant Front’s official YouTube account was taken down, most likely due to the aforementioned false “flagging” issue by ideologically driven trolls. The entire Levant Front official YouTube channel and all the videos uploaded to it was saved however by Syrian Civil War archivists, as observers have grown accustomed to the dirty tricks played by the Kremlin and the Assad regime’s extreme left and right wing political supporters.
In conclusion, the TOW program in Syria has been a fascinating military and political phenomenon; targets have not been limited to the Assad regime as originally intended, but also ISIS and the PKK-terrorist linked YPG. With 69 total known TOW supplied Syrian Opposition groups since the start of the Syrian Civil War [57 of which are currently active], the use of these missiles is an important indicator of international support to a given Syrian Opposition group, and therefore a gauge of the group’s clout and importance. It can also be seen as a bellwether of a group’s political credentials, as well as future support for groups in a specific region with a notable recent example being Northern Thunder Brigade in Mare’ North Aleppo; on the other hand, Regiment 93 based in Hama and Idlib has so far not been able to secure TOW missiles despite being a sizable group of 640 fighters resulting from the merger of several other FSA groups with strong moderate credentials. While TOWs have not changed the battlefield definitively in the Syrian Opposition’s favor and are not an unstoppable weapon as it is essentially 1970s technology equivalent to the Russian Konkurs ATGM in the Assad regime’s arsenal, they have certainly leveled the playing field to a significant degree. The “tank massacre” in the wake of the 2015 Idlib offensive in the al-Ghab Plains springs to mind as a painful example for the Assad regime of the havoc wrought on its inept military by the BMG-71 TOW missile. The Free Syrian Army’s leveraging of the TOW weapon system — and the SAA’s inability to adapt due to systematic issues in the Assad regime itself, or to leverage their own ATGM weapon systems effectively — has been notable, and an example to draw upon and emulate for future successful military engagement between the Syrian Opposition and their foreign backers.
Thanks to Ryan O'Farrell for his great work on the Syrian Opposition, @JohnArterbury and @LlamameIshmael for their invaluable help with Arabic, and @HasanMustafaS for his vital early work tracking Syrian Opposition TOW groups. I am grateful to Šerif Imamagić and @Syria_Rebel_Obs for their corrections to the TOW infographic.
- N.R. Jenzen-Jones, Y. Lyamin (2014, Apr. 19). “US produced TOW 2A ATGWs in Syria”. Armament Research Services [Online]. Available: http://armamentresearch.com/us-produced-tow-2a-atgws-in-syria/ [Accessed: June 30, 2016].
- H. Mustafa (2015, May 08). “The moderate rebels: A growing list of vetted goups fielding BGM-71 TOW Anti-Tank Guided Missiles”. hasanmustafas.wordpress.com [Online]. Available: https://hasanmustafas.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/the-moderate-rebels-a-complete-and-growing-list-of-vetted-groups-fielding-tow-missiles/ [Accessed: June 30, 2016].
- United States Dept. of the Army (1980, Jan.). “Operator And Organizational Maintenance Manual For TOW Weapon System Guided Missile System M220A1 (1440–00–169–1764)”. Google Books [Online]. Available: https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Operator_and_Organizational_Maintenance.html?id=4zAYAAAAYAAJ [Accessed: June 30, 2016].
- US 5332176 A (1994, July 26). “Controlled interlace for TOW missiles using medium wave infrared sensor or TV sensor”. Google Patents [Online]. Available: https://www.google.com/patents/US5332176 [Accessed: June 30, 2016].