Written by Brian Betts exclusively for SouthFront
The reported leak of the CIA’s “Plan B” in the Wall Street Journal last week has had impacts on the dynamic of the ongoing Syrian Conflict. While the specific weapons have yet to be named, the implicit promise of weapons, particularly “anti-air,” is clear. If the peace talks fail, the US and its allies will begin arming the “rebel” factions with “much more lethal weaponry.” Plan B is, essentially, an incentive for escalated conflict.
The Standard of Lethality
To understand what “much more lethal” means in context with the Syrian Conflict, weaponry that has already been delivered to anti-government forces should be considered as a benchmark. In 2014, a CIA-backed program delivered 500 BGM-71 Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided (TOW) air-to-ground missiles (ATGM) to anti-government forces. The weapons came from Saudi stockpiles and were delivered via the Turkish border.
The BGM-71 set a very lethal standard, against which the CIA has gauged its next move. On the first day of mass field implementation, anti-government factions reported 24 Syrian Army tanks and armored vehicles destroyed by TOW missiles. This trend has continued in the intervening years, with additional ammo being smuggled through the Turkish border. This reality has made matters in northern theaters more complex, denying the Syrian Army any bold strategy for armor employment and costing them critical resources such as rescue helicopters.
The reason why the BGM-71 has proven so lethal to the Syrian armored and mechanized forces is the specific variant that has been supplied. The BGM-71E, which has been seen in videos posted by all manner of criminal gangs, is noteworthy because it’s designed to defeat reactive armor with tandem warheads. This capability renders the Syrian Army T-72s, some equipped with reactive armor, vulnerable to its warhead.
Much More Lethal
The “Plan B” weapons increase lethality, specifically in the anti-air arena. Reports have already been made of Turkish efforts to smuggle small quantities of the FIM-92 “Stinger” Man-Portable Air-Defense System (MANPADS) in to Syria. Any “Plan B” escalation would likely include a higher volume of these shoulder-fired missiles.
The Stinger missile is lethal to low flying aircraft, and because of this, the widespread introduction of Stinger missiles to the Syrian conflict would further erode the Syrian Army’s fighting capability. Syrian Aérospatiale Gazelle scout helicopters, which have enjoyed particular success tracking terrorist convoys in the vast Syrian Desert, would be at greater risk. Russian attack helicopters and gunships would be vulnerable as well. Low flying Syrian Mig-21s would be within firing range during bombing runs, as would Russian Su-25s.
In turn, the decreased viability of low-level air operations might force Syria to rely more heavily on Russian aerial bombing efforts with higher-flying Su-34 and Su-24 tactical bombers.
Most disturbing, however, is the revelation that many terrorist factions will immediately get their hands on these weapons through trade or conquest, with or against respectively, anti-government forces. Both groups have proven capable of firing on civilians, and would likely use the weapons on non-combatants, such as rescue helicopters. This decreases the survivability of civilians and Syrian Army troops wounded in hard-to-reach regions, such as the mountains of Latakia.
The promise of “much more lethal” weaponry for belligerent forces in Syria will likely curtail the peace process. In addition to weakening the military strength of Assad’s forces and escalating demands for Russian intervention, the prolific presence of surface-to-air missiles in Syria would eventually impact US air missions as well, when ISIS and allied gangs inevitably gain possession of any weapon deployed.