U.S. Missiles Boost Rebels Stand Against Syrian Regime



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As Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Vienna for talks on the Syrian civil war, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are countering Russia's entry into the conflict by supplying more TOW missiles to rebels.

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The U.S. military confirms that it carried out an airstrike targeting a prominent member of ISIS - a man known as Jihadi John. He's the British citizen seen in videos of beheadings of several people. Those killed include the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, as well as an American aid worker, Peter Kassig.


The U.S. drone strike took place in Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in Syria. The Pentagon says it is still assessing if the target was killed.

INSKEEP: Now, this airstrike comes as the United States is boosting the amount of arms it's sending to rebels that it supports in the Syrian Civil War. The U.S. is urging peace while arming its allies.

WERTHEIMER: Tomorrow in Vienna, Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with delegations from more than a dozen countries. This includes Russia, which entered the war to support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. wants Assad removed from power. And on the ground in Syria, there are signs of a possible shift. NPR's Deborah Amos has been reporting on the impact U.S.-made missiles are having against pro-Assad forces. She joined us to talk about that. Good morning, Deborah.


WERTHEIMER: So is there a reliable way to count an increase in rebel strikes using these antitank weapons?

AMOS: Linda, the count comes from videos that the rebels post on YouTube. Since October - that's when the Russians arrived - there appears to be about 140 strikes. This is more than double any period since the U.S.-vetted rebels received these antitank missiles. They're called TOWs. This is a covert CIA program, and what we know about it comes from the rebels. And they say there's very strict requirements to get resupplied. You have to video the target, you have to return spent cartridges to these CIA operatives who are working in southern Turkey. There's a military operation room there. The supplies now are coming faster than any time we've seen before since the Russian intervention. So the number of strikes against Syrian tanks are going up. What you have now are rebel heroes. They're called tank snipers. They become folk heroes. They call them lion tamers. And this is a play on - Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria - it's a play on his name, which means lion in English.

WERTHEIMER: The TOW program, as you and others have reported from talking to rebels, is not officially acknowledged. But is this a sign that the U.S. is sort of all-in for at least some Syrian rebels?

AMOS: Let's focus on sort of. The question really is, who pushed this step up? And reports suggest it was the Saudis. Saudi sources say that Riyadh is supplying these TOWs from their supplies - about 500 of them. And this increase shows that the Turks and the Arab allies, they're not backing down from their support of these opposition rebels. Here's what analyst Noah Bonsey - he's with the International Crisis Group - here's what he says about U.S. approvals.

NOAH BONSEY: The TOWs in particular - these American-made antitank weapons - they're only being given to groups that have passed American vetting. So the fact that that is continuing, and that it appears that perhaps the supply has even increased, suggests at minimum that the U.S. is not opposed to these measures.

AMOS: Not opposed, says Noah Bonsey. He's with the International Crisis Group.

WERTHEIMER: These TOWs, then, have stiffened the resistance to the regime and the Russians. How does that affect this day of talks that Kerry is going to?

AMOS: You know, this battlefield remains fluid. The regime has made some gains. Spectacularly, this week they broke a siege of a key Air Force base in northern Syria that was held by ISIS. But the rebels, who are U.S. and Arab-backed, they also are holding their own with these TOWs, these antitank missiles. The rebels have so many of these TOWs that military experts told me that they're even expanding their targets - not just tanks but troop formations, military bulldozers and these contraptions called Dushkas. These are trucks with mounted artillery on them. So the Russians will come to the table with no sweeping military gains, and that does make a difference in diplomacy.

WERTHEIMER: So then, Deb, do we expect these talks to make much progress? What would be the goal for this round?

AMOS: Diplomats are saying the best you get is momentum. On the battlefield, there's a stalemate, and there is a diplomatic stalemate as well. There's no Syrians at the table yet. The Iranians and the Russians, they're pushing for a definition of what is a terrorist to decide which groups can come to the table, which cannot. The Americans and their allies, they want a timetable for the departure of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. The Russians and the Iranians say there's no reason for him to go. So the sides are still far apart. No one is yet willing to make compromises to bring a political solution to this awful Syrian crisis.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Deb Amos. Deb, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.