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This highly advanced U.S.-made anti-tank missile could now be on Syria’s frontlines

Spc. Vincent de Ruiter, prepares to fire a Javelin missile launcher at oncoming tanks during a training exercise at the Orchard Combat Training Center, Idaho, Aug. 21 (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Leon Cook, 20th Public Affairs Detachment)

A picture of a U.S.-made advanced anti-tank missile, apparently in the hands of a group Kurdish forces fighting near the northern Syrian town of Shaddadi, was posted to social media Tuesday.

If confirmed, it would be one of the first documented uses of a FGM-148 Javelin in the war against the Islamic State and a marked escalation in U.S. material being funneled to local groups.

The Javelin, first fielded at the turn of the 21st century and first used in combat in 2003, is one of the United States most advanced man-portable anti-tank weapons. However, a number of other countries use the Javelin, including Jordan and Qatar. Unlike the BGM-71 TOW–a system that the U.S. has sent in numbers to CIA-backed groups fighting in Syria–the Javelin uses an advanced system to actually lock on to its target through infrared imaging. The Javelin is also more portable than the TOW, which requires a heavy tripod and a portable power supply; a Javelin can be fired from the shoulder or a low crouch.

Aside from a picture of the system on Twitter, a video from the same account shows what is described as an Islamic State Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive device being destroyed by a missile two days before the Javelin’s apparent appearance.

While the Javelin is not pictured, the missile’s flight path prior to impacting the target is in line with how a Javelin strike would look. The path, known as a “top-attack” is a hallmark of the Javelin as it allows the warhead to strike the target where the armor is the weakest.

“Assuming he’s not firing from the side of a mountain or on top of a compound, it’s definitely a Javelin,” said Cpl. Thomas Gray, a former Marine Javelin gunner who watched the video.

State Department Spokesman John Kirby said that he could not confirm the authenticity of the image and that “nothing has changed about our policy of not providing the YPG with weapons.”

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Col. Pat Ryder, a spokesman for the United States Central Command, echoed Kirby adding that Syrian Democratic Forces had also not been armed with Javelins.

Shaddadi has been the site of heavy fighting in recent days, as Kurdish YPG forces and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have advanced under U.S. air cover against the Islamic State. Though their exact location is unconfirmed, U.S. Special Operation forces have been recently been deployed to northern Syria to train, advise and assist local forces on the ground. While it is unclear if U.S. forces have been involved in the fight around Shaddadi, the type of training required to effectively use a Javelin against a target like the one featured in the video is involved and could indicate that U.S. Special Operations forces are close to, if not on, the frontlines.

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Unlike the TOW, which only requires the operator to hold the crosshair on the target long enough for the wire-guided missile to reach its target, the Javelin uses a targeting unit called a command launch unit or CLU. Inside the CLU is a rectangle known as the tracking gate which needs to be centered and adjusted over the intended target quickly in order to hit it.

According to Gray, it took him more than three weeks with four hours a day of classroom time to become proficient using the CLU and subsequently the Javelin.

U.S. officials have denied that the U.S. is sending weapons to Kurdish YPG forces in Syria, but has admitted to giving the Syrian Democratic Forces–which includes both Kurds and Arabs–assistance in the form of ammunition and weapons.

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

This post has been updated to reflect comments from the Pentagon and State Department and corrected to properly describe when the system was first fielded.

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