Sunday 6 November 2016

Photo Report: The Syrian Arab Army (1)

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The following images were taken during Syrian Arab Army exercises over the past several years, including the large-scale exercise involving all branches of the Syrian Armed Forces in 2012. This exercise was carried out amid an increasingly deteriorating security situation in Syria, leading to calls from the international world for an intervention similar to the one seen in Libya. In response, the Syrian Armed Forces launched a several day long exercise to show its strength to the outside world.
The T-72AV, also known as the T-82 in Syria, seen during an exercise in the Rif Dimashq Governorate. Although the fleet of 'T-82s' has suffered heavily due to the large-scale proliferation of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) in Syria, a sizeable amount of tanks remain operational. Fully intact T-72AVs still sporting all of their explosive reactive armour (ERA) blocks as seen below have become an increasingly rare sight however.

Operating alongside the T-72AV is the T-72 'Ural', the first and also the least numerous T-72 variant to have been acquired by Syria before the start of the Civil War. The tanks can be seen equipped with a laser engagement system for training uses only. The T-72 'Ural' can easily discerned from other T-72 variants by the TPD-2-49 optical rangefinder protruding from the turret and by its flipper-type armoured panels instead of the rubber side-skirts seen on later types.

A row of 130mm M-46 field-guns take aim at a target during the 2012 exercises. Although several other types of artillery guns have been delivered or pulled out of storage over the course of the Civil War, the 130mm M-46 and the 122mm D-30 remain the primary artillery guns of the Syrian Arab Army. A limited number of 130mm M-46s have been mounted on Mercedes-Benz trucks under a programme aimed at increasing their mobility and effectiveness. Chinese 130 mm BEE4 rocket assisted projectiles (RAP) were specifically acquired for use with this platform, and greatly increased the operational potential of the 130mm M-46. Although the conversion of large numbers was planned, the start of the Civil War prevented the commencement of full scale production, and therefore they remain a relatively rare sight.

A convoy of three T-55(A)MVs and a single BMP-1 underway during an exercise in 2010. Although the Syrian Arab Army's immense fleet of tanks and BMPs were once destined to jointly operate on the plains of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, many are now individually attached to the various units and militias wrestling for control over Syria. Only the 4th Armoured Division and parts of the Republican Guard continue to operate their armour in organised fashion and (sometimes) with infantry support.

The Syrian Arab Army's fleet of T-55(A)MV has traditionally been concentrated along the Golan Heights, and although outdated when compared to Israeli armour currently in service, one could argue their combat effectiveness could surpass that of the T-72 'Ural' and T-72M1. The T-55(A)MV features Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armour (ERA), a KTD-2 laser rangefinder, smoke grenade launchers, an upgraded engine and the capability to fire the 9M117M Bastion anti-tank missile. The costs of just a few of these missiles is higher than the actual price of the T-55 launching them, and they have seen only limited action in Syria's Quneitra Governorate.

A soldier takes aim with his RPG-29, without a doubt the most feared type of RPG currently fielded in the world. The PG-29V's 105mm tandem warhead has so far caused tremendous losses under the SyAA's fleet of tanks, mainly the T-72. Although the T-55(A)MV and T-72AV are both equipped with ERA aimed at increasing the survivability of the tank, the tandem warhead was specifically designed to counter such armour and faces little problems penetrating it.

Although the procurement of large numbers of AK-74Ms was planned to replace the AK(M) and other (foreign) derivatives, the Civil War put a halt to this large scale re-equipment programme. The AK-74M was reportedly pitted against several other contenders including the Iranian KH-2002, all but two of which malfunctioned. Several new batches of AK-74Ms were received during the course of the Civil War however, alongside several other types of modern Russian weapons. Nonetheless, weapons such as the AK(M)-47 and PKM  have remained the most prevalent small arms amongst pro-Assad forces.

A convoy of BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) underway to their operational zone. Having suffered heavy losses during the war, the BMP-1 continues to see service with the many factions spread throughout Syria. The vehicle has served as the basis for many DIY modifications, and even a BMP-1 based multiple rocket launcher was recently sighted in service with the 4th Armoured Division.

Although many hoped for the reintroduction of the T-34/85 on today's battlefield, sightings of this legendary tank in Syria in recent years has so far remained limited to just five examples, two of which belonged to a batch of T-34/85s converted to T-34/122 self-propelled howitzers armed with the 122mm D-30, which was retired long before the Civil War. Two other (intact) T-34/85s were seen in Syria's Quneitra province, used as static pillboxes facing Israel. It is likely these tanks were operational until quite recently. The T-34/85 below was seen during an exercise shortly before the start of the Civil War. While the T-34/85, or T-34/76 for that matter, indeed continues to be used in operational capacity across the globe, their presence nowadays remains limited to Yemen and North Korea.

160mm M-160 mortars seen during the 2012 exercises. Seeing heavy use during the early stages of the Civil War, when many of the protests and armed uprisings that followed were still contained in the cities, these and other heavy mortars were often deployed just outside the city perimiter for the shelling of neighbourhoods that had revolted. In more recent years, the M-160s are believed to have been supplemented by additional 240mm M-240s with rocket-assisted projectiles.

Two BMP-1s during a recent training exercise simulating a combined assault on an enemy position with armour and infantry. Although this makes for great propaganda footage, such coordinated assaults are only being (correctly) carried out a limited amount of pro-Assad units during today's war. On the opposing side, al-Nusra Front (which recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) makes heavy use of mainly T-72s and BMP-1s operating together during assaults on regime-held parts of Aleppo.

Syrian Arab Army soldiers run towards the infantry compartment of their BMP-1 IFV during an exercise. All soldiers appear relatively well equipped compared to the hodgepodge of uniforms and equipment regime soldiers are outfitted with today. The SyAA had acquired large numbers of Chinese-produced combat gear, including helmets and bullet proof vests, shortly before the start of the Civil War, but simply ran out of stock when it started amassing an increasing number of new recruits in order to gain the upper hand on the battlefield.

A BM-21 fires one of its forty 122mm rockets towards a new target. The BM-21 is by far the most numerous multiple rocket launcher (MRL) in service with the Syrian Armed Forces. The type previously operated alongside a sizeable number of North Korean 122mm BM-11 MRLs before these were donated to Lebanon along with Syria's remaining stock of T-54 and older T-55 variants. With an increasing number of Volcanoes and 220mm, 300mm, 302mm multiple rocket launchers at hand, the Syrian Arab Army has somewhat compensated for the loss of large numbers of BM-21s by a substantial increase in qualitative firepower. Rebels operating in Northern Syria recently received BM-21s acquired from Eastern Europe by one of the Gulf States, further increasing the proliferation of this system in Syria.

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