They would signal a further internationalization of the conflict,
with new rockets suspected from Russia and drones from Iran also
spotted in the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
None of that equipment, however, is seen as enough to turn the tide
of battle in a now broadly stalemated war, with Assad dominant in
Syria's central cities and along the Mediterranean coast and the
rebels in the interior north and east.
It was not possible to independently verify the authenticity of the
videos or the supplier of the BGM-71 TOW anti-tank rockets shown in
the videos. Some analysts suggested they might have been provided by
another state such as Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, probably with
U.S. officials declined to discuss the rockets, which appeared in
Syria around the same time Reuters reported that Washington had
decided to proceed with plans to increase aid, including delivery of
U.S. officials say privately there remain clear limits to American
backing for the insurgency, given the widely dominant role played by
Islamist militants. A proposal to supply MANPAD surface-to-air
missiles was considered but rejected.
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the
Obama administration was giving support she did not define.
"The United States is committed to building the capacity of the
moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance
to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition," she said in
response to a query over the rocket videos.
"As we have consistently said, we are not going to detail every
single type of our assistance," she said.
While the number of U.S. rockets seen remains small, reports of
their presence are steadily spreading, analysts say.
"With U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles now seen in the hands of
three groups in the north and south of Syria, it is safe to say this
is important," said Charles Lister, visiting fellow at the Brookings
Institution Doha Centre and one of the first to identify the
The first three videos were posted on April 1 and 5, Lister said.
While two have since been removed, one remains on YouTube:
He posted clearer still images on a blog for Huffington Post last
Several other arms experts and bloggers on the Syrian conflict have
also reviewed the videos. They include Eliot Higgins, a
Britain-based, self-taught arms and video specialist who blogs under
the name "Brown Moses" and has emerged as one of the leading
authorities on foreign firepower reaching Syria.
The rebel faction shown operating the U.S. missiles in the first
videos, a relatively secular and moderate group called Harakat Hazm,
declined comment. But an opposition activist based in southeastern
Turkey who is a former member of Harakat Hazm said that they were
provided by the Americans.
The Syrian activist, who identified himself as Samer Muhammad, said
Harakat Hazm received 10 anti-tank missiles earlier this month near
Aleppo and Idlib, two cities torn by heavy fighting near the
northern border with Turkey.
He said that Harakat Hazm had launched five of those rockets to
destroy four tanks and win a battle in the Idlib suburbs of Babulin
and Salheiya, and this was the first time such U.S. arms had figured
in Syria's fighting.
His information could not be confirmed independently.
[to top of second column]
SAUDI, QATARI SUPPLIES
More recent videos had shown the rockets in the hands of the Syrian
Revolutionary Front and another group named Awliya wa Katalib
al-Shaheed Ahmed al-Abdo, Jessop said. Both are also seen as broadly
moderate, in contrast with radical Islamists.
Western states have long been reluctant to make good on repeated
talk of supplying weapons to Assad's foes, nervous of arms falling
into the hands of jihadi militants or simply abetting more bloodshed
in a conflict that has killed over 150,000 people and displaced
millions over the past three years.
Lister said that if Washington
were unwilling to supply TOW rockets itself, the most likely point
of origin was Saudi Arabia which has thousands of anti-tank
projectiles in its arsenal.
Under terms of the original sale, Riyadh would be obliged to tell
Washington if it were transferring them to any third party.
"Considering the groups already seen with these missile systems and
considering Saudis' already established reputation for providing
weapons to moderate... groups, Saudi would seem the most likely
candidate at this stage," Lister said.
The other major regional supporter of the rebels, Qatar, apparently
do not hold such rockets in its regular military stores, analysts
say, and may have bought Chinese weaponry from elsewhere, perhaps
Sudan, for shipment to rebels last year.
Chinese-built HJ-8 anti-tank guided missiles remain a relatively
common part of the rebel arsenal, according to Syria arms experts.
HJ-8s first popped up largely in the hands of Islamist groups early
last year, possibly coming from Qatar.
More recent shipments have been noticed in the hands of relatively
secular insurgent factions and are believed by analysts to have been
supplied by Saudi Arabia instead.
RUSSIAN ROCKETS, IRANIAN DRONES
Use of Chinese MANPAD anti-aircraft missiles by Islamist militants
has dwindled in recent months, monitors say. Such missiles arrived
last year, again believed to have come from Qatar, a development
that particularly worried Western states.
"I suspect there's been two waves of Chinese weapons, the first from
Qatar and the second from Saudi Arabia going to different groups,"
said "Brown Moses" blogger Higgins.
The United States and other Gulf Arab states have bemoaned Qatar's
scattergun approach to arming rebel forces that has seen many
weapons end up in the hands of fighters affiliated with al Qaeda
linked and other radical Islamists. Qatari and Saudi officials will
not discuss their Syria policy in detail.
Gulf states have also been alarmed by growing signs of support from
Iran for Assad's military. The latest new piece of Iranian equipment
to appear on the battlefield, an unmanned Shahed 129 drone
photographed over Damascus, is said by Tehran to carry weapons as
well as conduct surveillance.
Higgins said the other most significant development in Syrian
conflict firepower this year had been the government's growing use
of Russian-made BM-27 and BM-30 rocket launchers to deliver cluster
munitions. While the former had long been known to be part of
Assad't armories, the latter was not.
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington, Dasha
Afanasieva in Istanbul and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; editing by
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.