How to Take Out 1,800 Tanks in Two Years
Syrian rebels have disabled, captured or destroyed 25 percent of the government’s armored vehicles—but does it matter?
In 24 months of brutal combat, Syrian opposition fighters have eliminated a quarter of Pres. Bashar Al Assad’s Russian-made tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, according to estimates.
That’s no fewer than 1,800 T-55, T-62 and T-72 tanks plus BMP fighting vehicles exploded, burned, disabled or seized by rebels—with potentially thousands of crewmen also being killed, injured or captured.
The destruction of so many of the government’s heavy vehicles by relatively lightly armed rebels is, for the regime, a painful reminder of the vulnerability of even the most thickly armored tanks in close urban fighting—and especially when the vehicles aren’t protected by nearby infantry.
The high attrition of Al Assad’s combat vehicles should give hope to the opposition that it can defeat government forces even without air support, sophisticated anti-armor weaponry or large numbers of its own tanks.
But with 75 percent of tanks and fighting vehicles remaining, Al Assad probably has sufficient heavy forces to continue fighting for years. To say nothing of light forces.
In that time frame, other factors—whether military, economic or political—are perhaps more likely than a dearth of tanks to bring the conflict to a negotiated resolution.
Before the civil war, Al Assad’s Syrian Arab Army possessed 1,600 T-72s, some 1,000 T-62s, 2,250 T-55s and 2,450 BMPs, according to the U.S.-based Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But the army’s doctrine did not take advantage of all this mobile, protected firepower. “The bulk of the army … is now a garrison force best suited to static defense in depth and has limited real-world maneuver, combined-arms and joint warfare training,” Anthony Cordesman wrote in his 2008 book Israel and Syria: The Military Balance and Prospects of War.
In other words, the tanks were meant to sit in one spot and fire on an attacking enemy, more or less like artillery. And they weren’t combined with foot soldiers—an essential tactic in urban fighting, where the tanks need the infantry’s protection and the infantry needs the tanks’ firepower.
So when Al Assad sent his army to retake cities and towns controlled by rebels, it’s no wonder that the lightly-armed opposition fighters were able to isolate and take out many of the tanks and BMPs. Hundreds of videos posted to the Internet or handed out by rebel media reps depict opposition infantry attacking tanks with roadside bombs, rockets and even grenades dropped into turret hatches.
To be sure, assaulting an army tank is dangerous business for the rebels. One fighter named Basel, attached to the Sham Falcons brigade in Idlib, earned the nickname “Tank Killer” for destroying just one armored vehicle in 2011.
Closely watching and cross-referencing Internet videos, one Russian observer—the LiveJournal user “iltg2009"—estimated that the rebels destroyed 862 regime armored vehicles, including 380 tanks, between October 2011 and March 2013. The losses escalated starting in March, with at least 611 more tanks and BMPs destroyed, disabled or captured by rebels over just the next 90 days, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
And the LiveJournal user provided fresh stats for the period April to October, adding 363 more vehicles to Al Assad’s losses. All told, Al Assad has lost no fewer than 1,836 armored vehicles since the fighting began, if the estimates are to be believed.
The analysts counted only destroyed, damaged and captured vehicles—not dead, injured and captive crew members. One video posted online recently shows rebels hitting what a tank which then bursts into flames. One of the two men in the turret bails out and sprints away. The fate of the other turret crewman is unknown.
The driver, apparently injured, pulls himself out of his hatch and falls to the ground, where he is quickly shot dead. It’s worth noting that no regime infantry are anywhere in view as the rebels finish off the tank and its crew.
Usually the crew survives a hit on a vehicle, according to one Syrian tanker. “Rarely does anyone actually die inside the crew compartment,” the soldier told an interviewer. “Most of the time both the tank and crew are still combat capable.”
It’s not unheard of for crews to abandon perfectly functional armored vehicles, allowing them to fall into rebel hands. The opposition Free Syrian Army possesses dozens of captured tanks and enough trained crewmen to use them.
The tanks are used as a kind of mobile reserve, moved from hot spot to hot spot to reinforce opposition infantry. Rebel fighters in Areha, near Idlib, in late 2013 kept at least one tank and one BMP hidden among buildings, periodically sending the tank forward to fire a few rounds at regime positions.
There is scant evidence Al Assad’s army is getting any better about blending tanks and infantry. Some pro-government militias have been seen working in conjunction with armor. But increasingly the regime relies on the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah for ground troops—and Hezbollah is strictly a light infantry force that has never practiced combined arms.
Whereas the rebels, for all the internal divisions that threaten their overall strategy, have become steadily more experienced and better-armed. Opposition forces have gotten their hands on a few anti-tank guided missiles—either paid for by the rebels’ Middle East supporters and smuggled over the border, or seized from the regime. A missile can be seen striking a tank in the video above.
But Al Assad still has the advantage of sheer numbers. “Equipment losses, especially for the regime, have also been significant, but they do not appear to have seriously affected the regime’s ability to operate,” according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
And besides, air power, not armor, is the regime’s biggest advantage. Just as the rebels have fought for years without the advantage of heavy armor, Hezbollah likewise conceivably could continue to fight for the regime without the Syrian army’s tanks backing it up.
It seems that even taking out 1,800 tanks in 24 months is not enough to win a war.