Seven Years of War — Documenting Syrian Arab Army’s Armoured Vehicles Losses

March 27, 2018 – By Jakub Janovsky – Bellingcat 

Over the course of seven years of war, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has engaged in armed conflict against various opposition forces composed of domestic rebels and foreign volunteers, often equipped with light weapons. Given the sheer amount of open source information available related to these events, it is possible to track the military vehicle losses of the SAA — an army which once had the 6th largest number of tanks in the world.Before outlining the armoured tracked vehicle losses that can be confirmed by visual evidence (photos and videos), the methodology of collecting the information will be examined. The article ends with a discussion on the reasons why the SAA may have lost so many armoured tracked vehicles.A T-72 AV Soviet second-generation main battle tank of the Syrian Arab Army near the border with Israel. Date unknown.

General Information on the SAA’s Armoured Vehicles

To understand the context of the armoured tracked vehicles losses in the Syrian Civil War, it is important to briefly discuss the pre-war history of the SAA.For decades, the SAA had two main tasks. Firstly, the SAA needed to provide internal security for the Assad government. Secondly, the army needed to be able to conduct both offensive and defensive warfare against the State of Israel.

It was the latter task that arguably most influenced the aspects of the SAA, and focused heavily on obtaining large numbers of tanks, armoured personnel carriers (APCs), and infantry anti-tank weapons (mostly former Soviet RPGs and anti-tank guided missiles). Due to the fear of an Israeli attack, the SAA’s arsenal was spread over a large number of military bases across Syria’s governorates. A disproportionate number of those bases were established in the Damascus and Daraa governorates, which are situated close to the Golan Heights which have been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War. For more information, the “The Syrian Army: Doctrinal Order of Battle” report by the Institute for the Study of War is an excellent report.

At the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the SAA had approximately the following number of armoured tracked vehicles (all numbers mentioned are approximate numbers):

  • Tanks
    T-55: 2,000
    T-62: 1,000
    T-72: 1,500
  • Armoured Personnel Carriers
    BMP-1: 2,000
    BMP-2: 1,00
  • Support Armoured Vehicles
    BVP-1 AMB-S: 100
    ZSU-23-4 “Shilka”: 400
    armoured recovery vehicles: 130
  • Self-Propelled Artillery
    2S1 Gvozdika: 300
    2S3 Akatsiya: 100

Note: The numbers of pre-war SAA armoured tracked vehicles should be regarded as optimistic estimates. Some armoured vehicles were lost in past decades without being accounted for, while many others were not operational (or even beyond repair) at the start of the Syrian Civil War due to being in a long-term storage with minimal or no maintenance.

Later, the SAA obtained dozens of MT-LB APCs and T-90 tanks from the Russian Federation. The T-90s were first supplied in late 2015.

Source unknown. Composite image first posted by @WorldOnAlert.

On paper, the SAA also has other types of armoured vehicles: the BTR series of APCS, the T-34/D-30 self-propelled artillery, and other armoured tracked vehicles. However, they are generally extremely obsolete and therefore with minimal combat value; most of them are likely to have been scrapped or retired from service many years ago – at best some might still be parked at checkpoints in Syrian government controlled areas. This article is therefore limited to the types of vehicles that are actively being used by the SAA in the Syrian Civil War.

Collecting Visual Evidence

As most of Bellingcat’s readers are likely aware, YouTube and other video and photo hosting websites have many been deleting much footage related to the Syrian Civil War, this as part of their effort to show that they are fighting extremists material on their servers. Between false positives and malicious use of reporting content by supporters of all sides of Syrian Civil War, this has resulted in many photos and videos being lost forever.

Nevertheless, YouTube is still the main source of visual evidence that has been collected for this database. The author has archived footage from the Syrian Civil War since Spring 2015, mostly focused on documenting rebel ATGM use.

Another important source information has been the Lost Armour website, which easy to use and sort data though many of its source link refer to dead YouTube links. However, some Syrian government armour losses are missing on the website.

All of this and other sources have resulted in an archive worth of 102 gigabytes of data in 3,853 files, 85% of which are videos exceeding 100 hours of war footage.

As mentioned above, this article only includes losses for which there is visual evidence. For that reason, there may be losses that are not counted due to vehicles that could not be identified.

The term ‘losses’ refer to both heavily damaged and destroyed vehicles, and also to captured vehicles.

In case footage did not have enough detail to reliably determine the exact type of tank, it is referred to as “unknown type of tank“.

Since the SAA operates only a relatively small number of BMP-2s and BVP-1 AMB-S (the SAA had around 100 of each before the Syrian Civil War started) and BMP-2s rarely appear outside of Damascus governorate, they have been counted as a BMP-1 unless there was a positive ID for a BMP vehicle.

Several measures have been taken to avoid double counting, such as comparing footage of captured military bases, and counting vehicles which were captured or destroyed operated by opposition forces, the so-called Islamic State (IS) or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Since the SAA rarely captures intact armoured vehicles from its enemies, tracking such incidents has not been included. It is also a difficult task to gain further information about the SAA vehicles that were repaired. The number is likely to be relatively low since satellite photos of the army’s main facility for overhaul or major repair of armoured vehicles shows little to no activity.

Having discussed the methodology, the SAA’s vehicle losses will now be presented and discussed per year.

Armour Losses in 2011

During the first months of the Syrian uprising, the heavy violence was mostly one-sided, namely coming from the Syrian government shooting at protestors. Gradually, however, due to army defectors getting organised in armed resistance, they started targeting — and destroying — less protected armoured vehicles, mostly BMP-1s.

An opposition militant targets a BMP with an RPG in the Homs governorate on December 13, 2011.

In 2011, a total of 20 armoured vehicles of the SAA were lost.

Armour Losses in 2012

In 2012, there was a lot of effort to stop the fighting which resulted in a ceasefire. Although the truce did not hold in many place, it did reduce overall violence and therefore also a lull in SAA armour losses. This period of relative calm lasted until early May 2012 when Bayda and Baniyas massacres happened, at which point opposition forces decided to abandon the ceasefire and started series of attacks at regime positions, which resulted in a massive increase in losses of armoured vehicles to staggering average of 70 armoured vehicles per month.

Reason for such a high rate of losses despite the fact that rebels were only lightly armed (main weapons against armoured vehicles were RPGs and IEDs and/or mines) was a combination of poor tacts of the SAA , rebels making significant preparations for attacks on vulnerable points during the ceasefire and fact that at that time frontlines were in most places not yet established — giving rebels element of surprise in most attacks. As a result, the Syrian government gave up some of the indefensible territories which in turn helped reduce losses to “only” 30-50 per month.

Two ZSU-23-4 Shilkas captured by opposition forces in the Daraa governorate on December 16, 2013.

In 2012, a total of 393 armoured vehicles losses of the SAA were documented.

Armour Losses in 2013

In 2013, frontlines gradually solidified. Attempt to capture terrain required better organisation which slightly favoured the Syrian government with a unified command of its forces, albeit levels of corruption.

At the same time, opposition forces gained some experienced and captured a substantial amount of ATGMs, which allowed them to overrun many poorly defended SAA bases. Some rebel groups began operating armoured vehicles as well, not rarely captured in urban areas where the Syrian government had sent armoured vehicles into rebel-held territory with minimal infantry support. This resulted in substantial losses.

A destroyed T-72 in Qaboun, Damascus, on August 6, 2013.

In 2013, a total of 435 armoured vehicles losses of the SAA were documented.

Armour Losses in 2014

2014 started with large-scale fighting between opposition forces and the Islamic State (IS) group. This initially diverted a lot of manpower and firepower from the anti-government forces, resulting in a decrease of armour losses to around a dozen per month.

However, after the frontlines between opposition forces and IS stabilised, the extremist’s group attention shifted towards countering Syrian government offensives and their isolated bases which often stored an incredible amount of weapons and ammo.

In July and August of 2014, IS overran several government bases in the Raqqa governorate, including the Brigade 93 base where it captured over a double dozen of T-55 tanks. A slightly smaller number of armoured vehicles were later taken over by IS as it recaptured the Shaer gas field in October of that same year.

At least four T-55 tanks captured by the so-called Islamic State when the group took over the Syrian Arab Army’s 93 Brigade base in the Raqqa governorate. Photo published by @w_alraqqa on August 7, 2014.

In December, opposition forces launched a major assault in the Idlib governorate which resulated in the fall of the government’s Wadi Deif base and the loss of almost thirty armoured vehicles.

Two captured T-62 tanks by opposition forces at the Wadi Deif base in the Idlib governorate on December 15, 2014.

One of the most effective weapons against regime armoured vehicles were ATGMs but until 2014 rebels had received only a small number of them from external sources and had to rely on capturing them from government positions. (These positions almost always contained way more weapons and ammunition than the defenders could reasonably use, even if they were trained to use that equipment.)

This relative scarcity of ATGMs began to change in the spring of 2014, when the United States allowed its allies (mostly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Jordan) to start supplying TOW ATGMs to selected rebel groups under the Timber Sycamore programme. Specifically the TOW 2A was supplied, a model optimised to deal with tanks that are using reactive armour.

One of the conditions for getting new TOW missiles was to provide video evidence of their use; an anti-proliferation measure with the goal of preventing ATGMs from ending up with extremist armed groups. Hence, many TOW ATGMs strikes were uploaded to YouTube by the vetted groups, which made tracking SAA armour losses considerably easier. The number of supplied TOW ATGMs gradually increased as more rebel groups were approved to get them and more crews finished training.

Abu Hamza, at the time with Free Syrian Army’s 1st Coastal Division, operating a TOW in early 2015. Famed for his skills in operating the BGM-71 TOW.

A BVP-1 AMB-S captured by opposition forces in the Daraa governorate on February 1, 2014. Source.

A destroyed T-71 near Dear al-Adas in the Daraa governorate on October 1, 2014. Source.

In 2014, a total of 294 armoured vehicles losses of the SAA were documented.

Armour Losses in 2015

During the first nine months of 2015, Syrian government forces seriously struggled to regain the initiative after substantial losses in the second half of 2014.

Starting in late February, opposition forces combined their strenghth into a powerful alliance that came to be known as the Army of Conquest and launched a major, well-planned offensive in the Idlib governorate. The offensive was supported with a significant amount of external weapons and ammunition, especially TOW ATGMs. The latter were crucial in defeating the government’s tank-heavy counter-attacks.

In late April, rebels besieged around 250 government troops in the Jisr al-Shugour hospital, pressing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go on national television promising to lift the siege. Despite moving a large number of troops and heavy weapons – mostly from eastern Homs – into the area, all government attempts to lift the siege failed. This was partly due to the provenance of the TOWs in an ideal terrain for ATGMs: forested hills rising high above the plain which government forces had to use to reach the hospital. A breakout attempt resulted in the death of almost 85% of government forces.

View on the Ghab plain from a nearby hill. The villages of Ghaniyah, Kufayr, Frikka, and Al-Sirmaniyah are clearly visible. Source: Eyad Alhosain.

Note: Armour losses in Idlib were quite serious, but a lot of visual evidence is missing because it is around this time that YouTube starts deleting videos and even banning whole channels. Due to this armour loss count is significantly lower than it would otherwise be.

Intense fighting in southern Idlib has drawn a large number of remaining government “elite” mechanised units (most of the troops on both sides were practically unusable for offensives and “elite” units on all sides of Syrian Civil War would at best be seen as average troops in competent army) which left area of eastern Homs governorate vulnerable and IS exploited this situation with what was initially just a raid that due to unexpected success when fighting very poorly trained regime troops was reinforced and turned into a real offensive that captured Sukna, Palmyra and oil/gas fields in that area.

This has become a low point for the Syrian government forces, which after these defeats controlled less than 20% of Syria and faced the prospect of rebels being able to gain firepower superiority at least in some areas. While the government was still in control of many major urban areas, IS was posing a serious risk to eastern Homs area, while rebels were making preparations for a large offensive which would try to repeat Idlib scenario and capture Hama city and large part of Hama governorate – which would also cut off regime forces in Aleppo and put regimes stronghold Latakia in danger.Shortly after this, Syria’s allies Russia and Iran decided to come to the help. Russia moved dozens of planes and helicopters to the airbase in Latakia and Iran moved increasing numbers of military advisors, as well as Iraqi and Afghani proxy forces as well as Hezbollah reinforcements. into Syria to stabilise the situation. Emboldened by this increase in support, the SAA started a major offensive to retake northern Hama and advance into the Idlib governorate in October 2015. This resulted in a major battle against rebels who used around 140 ATGMs in that month alone, inflicting large losses on regime armoured units and regime even lost some territory in northern Hama. But rebels meanwhile took serious losses from Russian Air Force (RuAF) airstrikes which forced them to abandon large-scale offensive in Hama.

In 2015, a total of 291 armoured vehicles losses of the SAA were documented. It is important to take into account that a disproportionate number of visual evidence from this year was lost.

Armour Losses in 2016

In 2016, thanks to foreign reinforcements provided by Iran, air support from Russia, and small shipments of modern T-72 variants and T-90 tanks (And later larger shipments of T-62Ms and BMPs), the Syrian government started gaining the upper hand in the Syrian Civil War.

However, often when the SAA started an offensive in one place, it was in danger of losing ground elsewhere – even with air support of the Russian Air Force (RuAF). Losses were also inflicted upon the SAA by both rebel ATGM hits and IS manoeuvring tactics in the desert areas.

An RPG hit on BMP-1 in northern Aleppo governorate on April 5, 2016.

To take advantage of firepower, the Syrian government forces launched a series of offensives to link up with besieged Shia dominated towns in northern Aleppo, to recapture Palmyra, and, later, to besiege rebel-held part of Aleppo city. Just like in previous battles, the government forces depended on sheer firepower and a large number of armoured vehicles leading mostly frontal assaults against prepared defences. Mostly because of RuAF which was slowly but surely successful, but at a high cost to attacking units.

When government forces was distracted in one place, rebels repeatedly tried to regain the initiative by launching offensives in areas that were lacking troops. In spring, while fighting around Palmyra, rebels attacked northern Hama and while government reinforcements together with RuAF reversed rebel gains, they lost dozens of armoured vehicles in a fairly short amount of time.

Something similar was repeated in late summer when government forces weakened other fronts in order to concentrate enough forces to cut off rebel part of Aleppo and besiege it. Shortly after this was achieved regime was surprised by large rebel offensive in the southern part of Aleppo city which for several weeks lifted regimes siege of Aleppo and cut off regime part of Aleppo from supplies.

While reversing this rebel gain (which also cost regime significant amount of troops and armoured vehicles, rebels in northern Hama launched another attack and came very close to the city of Hama itself. While all these rebel offensives were ultimately defeated they showed how reliant is regime on RuAF air support and how weak it is even when faced two with enemies – one of which was bombed nonstop by RuAF and the other one by a US Air Force (USAF).

Tanks captured by Islamic State militants in Palmyra on December 11, 2016.

When by the end of the year defences of rebel-held Aleppo started breaking down due to huge firepower provided by RuAF and Russian artillery combined with Syrian government ground forces, IS took the opportunity and swiftly defeated regime forces around Palmyra and captured the town. When regime forces run away they left behind around 2 dozen tanks which IS captured— most of which USAF soon destroyed.

In 2016, a total of 321 armoured vehicles losses of the SAA were documented.

Armour Losses in 2017

By early 2017, the initiative was firmly in hands of the Syrian government as the IS militants were faced with a multi-front war and constantly under the threat of airstrikes of a dozen foreign countries, and opposition forces as well but then by RuAF. However, both opposition groups as well as IS were able to conduct only short offensives, which hurt government forces but could not stop their advance.

Also, in early 2017, the supply of TOW ATGMs significantly slowed down and a few months later aforementioned Timber Sycamore programme was terminated. While both rebels and IS were still able to exact a significant price for government advances in their territory, they were only able to slow down this advance – rarely stopping or reversing it for longer than a few weeks.

Rebels were also significantly damaged by their infighting, which flared up any time they weren’t under pressure from the regime.

A T-90 destroyed by the so-called Islamic State in Mayadeen on November 16, 2017. The photo was published by the group’s media wing.

A T-90 destroyed by the so-called Islamic State in Mayadeen on November 16, 2017. The photo was published by the group’s media wing.

In 2017, a total of 243 armoured vehicles losses of the SAA were documented.

Armour Losses in 2018

2018 is obviously far from over and the same is likely true for the Syrian Civil War.

While the Syrian government is crushing the eastern Ghouta pocket west of Damascus and negotiating likely surrender of the northern Hom’s pocket, there is still plenty of opportunity for conflict between the government and the SDF. In the east, remnants of IS are also still a threat and fate, while the fate of opposition-held Idlib and southern Daraa is still undecided.

Due to a degraded strength of opponents to the Syrian government, its visually confirmed armour losses in past months have not been as expected. This is also partly due to the fact that obtaining footage of armour losses is harder to obtain now that the Syrian government forces are regaining territory.

A destroyed T-72 near eastern Ghouta, Damascus governorate, on March 4, 2018.

The current count of visually confirmed SAA losses of armoured vehicles in 2018 is 40.

Summary and Analysis

A total of at least 2,037 armoured vehicles of the Syrian government have been destroyed since the start of the Syrian Civil War, extensive analysis of visual footage shows.

When one considers that many more potential losses lack visual evidence, the actual number of losses for the SAA may be much higher. This is also because the number of armoured tracked vehicles at the beginning of the conflict were likely to be an overestimate of the actual number. Besides, Russia shipped a number of its own T-62Ms to Syria. The 6th largest tank fleet in the world has arguably been destroyed.

A number of destroyed armoured tracked vehicles (1x T-72, 4x BMP-1, 1x BVP-1 AMB-S) near Adra, Damascus, on February 27, 2013.

Arguably, several reasons can be mentioned why the Syrian armed forces lost so many armoured vehicles during the course of the ongoing Syrian Civil War. A few can be especially highlighted, the author believes, such as the civil war in general, large quantities of weapons and ammo being stored in indefensible locations combined with lack of preparations to destroy weapons and ammo in case of retreat, incompetence of army components, which was fueled by officer promotions being driven by bribes and percieved loyalty, instead of competence, the inability or unwillingness to learn from previous costly mistakes, the lack of proper combined arms training, obsolete equipment, and a proliferation of powerful anti-tank weapons.

The author would like to thank all my friends for their invaluable help, with special thanks to @MENA_Conflict, @oryxspioenkop, @QalaatAlMudiq, @adambrayne7, @SCW_Nuggie, @DLAMNscw, @Mr_Ghostly and the whole Bellingcat Investigation Team.

Lastly, the author would like to thank the ‘SFM’ group (you know who you are) for sharing working links to footage that was likely to be quickly removed from public websites.