Thursday, 19 May 2016

The YPG going DIY, armour upgrades in Northern Syria

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

While many of our posts have been devoted to the MENA's attempts to locally 'improve' its armour, we have never touched upon on the YPG's DIY armour upgrades. Not that there has been a lack of DIY armour upgrades coming from Northern Syria, but mainly because these local conversions were often so hideous we'd rather continue the trend of leaving other sites to cover them. Nonetheless, there have been a number of interesting projects coming from the YPG-held territory lately, which will be covered in this post.

Carrying out the YPG's armour upgrades is the responsibility of two major armour workshops located in Afrin, Aleppo Governorate (Afrin Canton) and the Hasakah Governorate, the latter of which is supported by several smaller workshops located throughout the Hasakah Governorate. Interestingly, this closely mirrors the Islamic State's methods in Syria, which also established two major armour workshops further supported by several smaller workshops elsewhere in Islamic State held territory.

But compared to other major factions involved in the Syrian Civil War, the YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel - People's Protection Units) is the least rich in armour. To compensate for this gap in its capabilities, the YPG became very active in the production of  DIY armoured vehicles, usually based on tractors or trucks. For true armour, the YPG is reliant on vehicles captured from the Islamic State, vehicles left behind by the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) and equipment turned over by the SyAA in return for a save passage (for example after retreating from Mennagh airbase in 2014). The latter provided the YPG with three T-72 'Urals' and one T-55A, a major haul for the YPG. But apart from just operating its captured vehicles in their initial configuration, the YPG also performs upgrades on most of its armour. From simple things like replacing barrels of a ZSU-23 with those of a ZU-23 to producing complete armour packages, the YPG has done it all.

By taking over former SyAA bases, the YPG also gained a limited number of BTR-60s decommissioned from service shortly before the start of the civil war. Sometimes used as a static pillbox by the defenders, most of these vehicles were left to rot in various corners of the base by the SyAA. Because repairing these vehicles, almost all suffering from flat tires, was not worth the effort in the eyes of many of their other capturers, the YPG quickly became the largest operator of operational BTR-60s in Syria.

At least two of these BTR-60s were then upgraded by the addition of additional armour around the body of the vehicle and by the addition of skirts and mudguards covering the tires. Interestingly, one example uses a 12.7mm DShK as a replacement for the 14.5mm KPVT normally present in the BTR-60's turret. This vehicle, seen below, also received a new engine (as can be witnessed by the presence of a bulge in this location), likely because the original engine was damaged beyond repair.  Unfortunately for the YPG, after the intensive effort it put in upgrading this vehicle, it got stuck in a ditch while fleeing from an Islamic State attack in the Hasakah Governorate, during which an upgraded BMP-1 was also captured. The crew removed the 12.7mm DShK before abandoning the vehicle however, denying the enemy valuable ghaneema (spoils of war).

Another rarity that serves with the YPG is the MT-LB multi-purpose armoured vehicle, of which only six have so far been documented in Syria. Two are in service with the Islamic State in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate while the other four are used by the YPG in the Hasakah Governorate. All six examples came from Iraq, where the Islamic State captured them from the Iraqi Army. Although Syria acquired nearly any armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) available for export from the Soviet Union, it never acquired the MT-LB. The YPG-operated examples were already believed to be in Kurdish hands before the start of the Syrian Civil War.

Interestingly, the MT-LB seen below was one of the examples upgraded by the addition of wider tracks by Ba'athist Iraq. These vehicles are sometimes designated as MT-LBVs. Two of the YPG's MT-LBs can be seen in the row of AFVs on the bottommost image, which also includes two T-55s upgraded by the addition of a gunshield, stowage boxes and mudguards and one armoured earthmover equipped with the turret of a BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV).

Opposed to the Afrin Canton, which has to do with just one T-55, YPG forces in the Hasakah Governorate now operate a respectable amount of T-55s captured from mainly the Islamic State. While some are immediately employed on the battlefield by the YPG, most T-55s get sent to Hasakah's workshops for overhauling and upgrading. The extent of these upgrades vary on every tank, which likely has to do with the state the tank is in: Tanks that require relatively little work are more likely to be sent back to the front as quick as possible.

Most of these upgrades are comprised of the addition of a gunshield for the loader-operated 12.7 mm DShK, new stowage boxes, new mudguards and a fresh coat of paint, resulting in plenty of colourful T-55s on the battlefield of Northern Syria. At least one T-55 has also been upgraded by the addition of slat armour to the sides of the tank, once again showing the improvised nature of these armour upgrades.

Not all AFVs captured on the battlefield are completely salvageable however. A damaged turret or a lack of traditional means to replace defective parts can result in a tank that is still able to drive, yet is completely useless in its intended role due to its defective armament. While in Syria this more than often means that the tank will be written off, the YPG generally refuses to let these scarce armoured platforms go to waste, and DIY light turrets are a common occurrence on YPG vehicles as a result.

Two such examples based on T-55s equipped with a 12.7mm W85 and 2x 14.5mm KPVs as well as two BMP-1s that had their 73mm 2A28 Grom turret replaced by one containing a 12.7mm DShK have been spotted so far. This resulted in a vehicle with extremely similar looks to that of the Czechoslovak OT-90 APC, which is equipped with the turret of an OT-64A, armed with a single 14.5mm KPVT and a single 7.62mm PKT. Curiously, the second BMP-1 features another light turret on the rear, which has yet to be fitted with any weaponry.

In order to accommodate the first T-55 to its new turret, the original one was removed and the turret ring gap welded shut so a smaller cupola could take its place. Also of interest is the vehicle's bow armour, which has been reinforced resulting in an even more sloped front than before. Lastly, a stowage box has been added to the rear of the tank. This vehicle was seen in a VICE documentary covering foreign fighters that joined the YPG and also in a training video where its new machine gun turret was being tested.

Another image of the same vehicle can be seen below, this time next to one of the YPG's M1117 Armored Security Vehicles (ASV) it operates in Syria. Several of these vehicles were taken over from the Iraqi Army while others were captured from the Islamic State and subsequently transferred to Syria for use by the YPG. This particular M1117 has been armed with a single 14.5mm KPV in a rudimentary turret and has been up-armoured by the addition of metal plating to protect the gunner and skirts to protect the wheels.

The second T-55 based AFV was first seen in the al-Shaddadi offensive last February, where it featured alongside several 'true' T-55s. This offensive was aimed at capturing the remainder of the Hasakah Governorate and the town of al-Shaddadi from the fighters of the Islamic State, and was successfully concluded in a week.

Although clearly based on the version seen above, the second example features several modifications over the previous iteration, most notably a new and larger turret. Interestingly, this turret looks extremely familiar to that of the North Korean 323 APC. Its actual origin is less exotic however, as similar looking turrets were already seen on earlier DIY AFVs produced by the YPG.[1] [2]

The new turrets now boosts two 14.5mm KPVs instead of a single 12.7mm DShK. This, along with the addition of side skirts and a radio antenna are the only visible external differences. A camouflage pattern instead of the black finish on the first example was also introduced, a welcome change when operating in the lush area around al-Shaddadi.

The armour situation in the Afrin Canton is even more critical, where the YPG operated no AFVs until the fall of Mennagh airbase, after which they received three T-72 Urals, one T-55A with DPRK LRF and later one BMP-1. These were also subsequently upgraded to various degrees, and recently saw use in YPG's offensive against the Free Syrian Army in Northern Aleppo. Currently two T-72 Urals, the T-55A and BMP-1 as well as a newly captured T-62 which will likely be upgraded in the near future remain in YPG hands here.

The single BMP-1 present in the Afrin Canton was upgraded by the addition of additional armour and unsurprisingly, stowage boxes. The new armour is comprised of additional plating covering the engine deck, further supported by slat armour on the front of the vehicle. The turret also received an additional layer of armour, resulting in similar looks to the 'Kovriki' armour seen on later-generation BMP-2s. The addition of sideskirts and a stowage box on the side of the vehicle make the vehicle surprisingly similar to the Ba'athist Iraqi BMP-1 'Saddam'.

Also handed over by the SyAA and subsequently upgraded by the YPG was a T-55A, one of the examples that was upgraded by the North Koreans decades ago. This T-55A was part of the convoy that fled Mennagh for Kurdish held territory, where the tanks were subsequently handed over to the YPG. This example, the only T-55 to operate in the Afrin Canton, received new mudguards, sides kirts, stowage boxes, camouflage and slat armour protecting the rear of the tank.

Even the YPG's most important AFV assets receive a variety of upgrades. All three of the T-72 Urals operated in the Afrin Canton were upgraded, and two received a complete cage of slat and spaced armour to enhance their protection against shaped charge warheads, comparable to the kits created by the Republican Guard and Islamic State. At least two of the T-72s appear to have been crewed entirely by females.

The first, which can be seen below, appears to make do with slat armour on the rear only, as well as the addition of side skirts.The other two feature mostly identical slat and spaced armour upgrades all around the turret and hull, and can only be distinguished by their camouflage and the fact that on one example the IR searchlight was damaged and replaced by three regular truck lamps bundled together.

Unfortunately for the YPG, one of these upgraded T-72s was destroyed by a TOW ATGM fired by the Free Syrian Army on the 29th of March 2016. The TOW penetrated the vehicle and caused the 125mm main gun to fire, indicating the tank has indeed been destroyed. At least one crewmember was seen moving around the tank shortly before impact, but the two others were believed to be present inside the tank at the time of impact and were undoubtedly KIA.

With practically all factions waging war in Syria now having committed themselves to upgrading various types of armoured fighting vehicles to increase their survivability, and with little chance of foreign supplies of large numbers of AFVs in the near future, the Syrian battlefields are rapidly transformed into the birthing grounds of ever more wild contraptions. The YPG's contributions in this area, while formerly mostly limited to outlandish DIY monstrosities, are now swiftly increasing in significance, and have secured their rightful place amongst the plethora of DIY projects out there.

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Monday, 9 May 2016

The Islamic State going DIY, the Telskuf offensive

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans 

Just six days after the release of the now infamous footage showing fighters of the Islamic State fighting, failing and getting killed while storming Peshmerga positions North of Mosul, the Islamic State made another attempt at taking Peshmerga positions on the 3rd of May 2016 near the Assyrian town of Tesqopa (or Telskuf, Tel Eskof, Tel Asqof or Tel Asqaf in Arabic). The result of this attack received worldwide attention as the resulting battle saw the death of a U.S. serviceman stationed there as part of Navy SEAL unit sent to protect this part of Iraq from further Islamic State attacks.

As was the case with the attack on the 16th of December 2015 near Naweran, the Islamic State published its own images taken both prior and during the attack. This has again led to the strange situation where defending Peshmerga troops publish images of killed Islamic State fighters first, followed by an Islamic State photo report showing these exact same soldiers very much alive while preparing for battle shortly after. The results of the battle, and the fact that most of the Islamic State contingent was wiped out, makes it unlikely any Islamic State video covering the attack will every be released.

Contrary to similar offensives conducted by the Islamic State North of Mosul, often featuring its fighters operating in junction with heavily modified armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), the initial phase of the assault on Telskuf was actually successful. Not only did the Islamic State breach the defenders' positions on several fronts, its fighters also managed to enter and take control of large parts of the town. This is where their success story ends however, as a counterattack carried out by Peshmerga forces and U.S. Navy Seals with heavy U.S. air support annihilated the Islamic State's armoured fighting vehicles and troop concentrations, allowing Peshmerga troops to retake the town as quickly as it was lost. The last pockets of remaining Islamic State fighters hiding in the town were said to have been cleared later the same day.

The attack on Telskuf was spearheaded by the 'Storming Battalion - Abu Laith al-Ansari's Sector', further supported by at least ten vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) from the 'Suicide Battalion'. Interestingly, the 'Storming Battalion' designates its formations as 'Sectors', each 'Sector' being responsible for operating in its designated area. The formation leading the attack on Telskuf was named in honour of the former Wali of Mosul Abu Laith al-Ansari, which was killed by a U.S. airstrike back in November 2014. Several military formations would be named after him, including the Abu Laith al-Ansari Brigade. The 'Storming Battalion' was also responsible for the failed offensive near Naweran, involving the crew of Abu Ridhwan and the now infamous Abu Hajaar. The 'Sector' responsible for the attack remains unknown however. No major attacks like these are believed to have taken place since the offensive near Naweran in December 2015, which should have given the 'Storming Battalion' plenty of time to rethink their strategy.

The major problems encountered during (previous) 'Storming Battalion' attacks North of Mosul were serious enough to deter any military force from carrying out such attacks in the first place. But with plenty of armoured fighting vehicles and fighters to spare, the Islamic State apparently does see these attacks as justifiable. The major obstacle the 'Storming Battalion' usually runs into are the well-fortified Peshmerga positions they are intend to capture. These positions, often located on the high-ground, forces the armoured fighting vehicles to drive through open fields while fully exposed to RPG, ATGM and tank fire from the Peshmerga. With most of the vehicles already knocked out by the time they arrive here, those remaining are then blocked by a huge trench often surrounding Peshmerga positions, which can only be crossed by bridgelayer or by filling it with dirt. While all of this is going on, the US-led coalition is often already present over the battlefield, striking the attackers with its aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

While Wilayat Ninawa (Mosul) scores best among all Wilayats of the Islamic State when it comes to air defence, the anti-aircraft artillery it operates is only of real use against low-flying helicopters and slow-flying aircraft. The speed of fast jets and the height they're flying at makes it extremely unlikely any will ever get hit over the skies of Iraq and Syria. Interestingly, the Islamic State set up an independent battalion for air defence tasks in Wilayat Ninawa. The 'Wilayat Air Defence Battalion' was first paraded through Mosul back in March 2015 and again made an appearance when it was shown trying to bring down U.S. (E)P-3s used for intelligence gathering and electronic warfare over Mosul by using 122mm D-30 howitzers.

But instead of assigning the 'Wilayat Air Defence Battalion's assests to the 'Storming Battalion' as they go out on their mission, the 'Storming Battalion' is responsible for its own air defence. During the past attacks, including the one near Telskuf, this has meant that air defences consisted of nothing more than 14.5mm and single-barreled 23mm anti-aircraft guns installed on pickup trucks. While the anti-aircraft guns of the 'Wilayat Air Defence Battalion' are unlikely to bring down any fast jets, it could at least deter coalition aircraft with its heavier 37mm, 57mm and 122mm (anti-aircraft) guns.

The strength of the 'Storming Battalion' during the attack on Telskuf is said to have consisted of more than 300 fighters supported by several dozens of up-armoured AFVs and pickup trucks. The remains of least 154 Islamic State fighters were counted as of the 6th of May 2016, with at least 25 AFVs and pickup trucks confirmed to have been destroyed or captured. In return, the Peshmerga lost at least ten fighters (but likely more) and one U.S. Navy Seal was also killed in action when an RPG hit the armoured SUV he was sitting in. Ten to fifteen Navy Seals were believed to have been present during the counter-offensive, footage of which can be seen here. The casulties among the Assyrian militia also defending the town are unknown.

In typical fashion, the attack was preluded by a barrage of artillery and mortar fire on defensive positions around the town. The first wave of VBIEDs from the 'Suicide Battalion' followed about an hour later, clearing the way for the first elements of the 'Storming Battalion' which arrived soon after. The attack was said to have come from at least three, possibly four directions, with more than ten VBIEDs being used in total. Apart from using bulldozers to fill trenches with sand to allow vehicles to cross, the 'Storming Battalion' now also employed a dedicated bridgelayer. This vehicle was not seen in any footage however, making it unknown if a real armoured vehicle-launched bridge (AVLB) captured in Mosul or a DIY contraption was used for this task. To give a clear indication of the width of some of these trenches, the main trench around Naweran with an up-armoured 'Storming Battalion' bulldozer on the right can be seen below. This bulldozer was to fill the huge trench with sand while under heavy fire from Peshmerga positions nearby and unsurprisingly was knocked out before completing its task.

Faced with a nummerically superior enemy, the defenders made the choice to retreat rather than defend their positions to the last bullet. Their organised retreat allowed them to reorganise on the outskirts of Telskuf and then counterattack with U.S. ground and air support. This decision paid off hugely, and limited the casualties on the side of the Peshmerga. If the defenders were to remain in the town, they would undoubtedly have been beaten back by the superior numbers of the 'Storming Battalion'. The ensuing fight would also have taken place in Telskuf itself, which would have been thoroughly wrecked by U.S. airstrikes as a result. Instead, the 'Storming Battalion' advanced further into Peshmerga held territory after capturing large parts of the town, exposing itself to the U.S. airstrikes in open ground, leading to huge losses on their side. The remains of an Islamic State convoy, including a single M1114 and several pickup trucks, can be seen below.

The armoured fighting vehicles of the 'Storming Battalion' were externally similar to those used in the attack on Naweran on the 16th of December 2015. The photo report released by the Islamic State covered the main assault group, which was better equipped than the other groups who took part in the offensive. The composition of AFVs of the main assault group was roughly the same as that of the group that assaulted Naweran, this time consisting of one up-armoured MT-LB, at least five up-armoured M1114s, several Badger ILAVs and armed pickup trucks.

Several 'improvements' over previous iterations of the M1114s are apparent, all now boasting angled armour to better protect the front of the vehicle against large-calibre machine guns and RPGs. A hatch for better access to the engine was also cut out in the front. Interestingly, at least two of the M1114s sported firing ports for assault rifles or light-machine gun in use with the crew, the lack of which proved 'unfavourable' during the attack on Naweran. The firing port in the front right side window was retained, allowing an additional gunner to sit in the front. The M1114's doors on at least one of the vehicles were replaced by DIY armoured doors. In common with previous versions, all up-armoured M1114s featured a cabin over the body of the vehicle, allowing for the carriage of up to three fighters. At least one vehicle was armed with a Chinese 12.7mm W85 heavy machine gun, also seen during the attack on Naweran on two of the 'Storming Battalion's' vehicles.

In typical DIY fashion, none of the vehicles are exactly the same. Confusingly, some of the vehicles were painted in black, a colour normally seen on AFVs operated by the 'Shield Battalion'. The black-painted AFVs participating in the assault on Telskuf were all believed to have been subordinate to the 'Storming Battalion' however, which normally camouflages its vehicles with colours more adaptive to the local terrain. Two of the up-armoured M1114s that participated in the attack on Telskuf can be seen in the image below, with one of the M1114s used during the assault on Naweran seen in the bottom for comparison.

Another image shows the same row of vehicles but now photographed from the other side. The vehicle seen next to four Islamic State fighters in front is the up-armoured MT-LB, which would later be captured intact by the Peshmerga. Both of the M1114s visible come with a ladder inside their compartment to allow the crew to storm Peshmerga positions located on high ground. Two of the VBIEDs of the 'Suicide Battalion' can be seen on the right. These vehicles, always painted in black, are often serialled, the vehicle on the right being '502'. The image at the bottom shows another three VBIEDs, the vehicle in front serialled '1004'. One of the VBIEDs failed to detonate its deadly load and was later captured intact.

Having access to the large amount of equipment and gear the Iraqi Army left behind as they fled Mosul, the soldiers of the 'Storming Battalion' are among the best-equipped fighters of the Islamic State. The relatively sophisticated weaponry and large amounts of munition they bring with them don't make up for a lack of training and combat experience however, which became painfully clear during the attack on Naweran, involving the likes of Abu Hajaar and Abu Abdullah.

While the 'Storming Battalion' thus managed to achieve its initial objective, it was soon left to the mercy of the F-15Es and A-10s from the U.S. Air Force and AH-64 Apaches from the U.S. Army. Two UH-60 Blackhawks also participated to retrieve the body of the U.S. Navy Seal that was killed in action. Unable to defend itself against aerial attacks, the whole 'Storming Battalion' contingent was then wiped out in open ground, with the crews of some vehicles leaving their vehicles and fleeing the scene.

The next image shows one of the 14.5mm KPV armed pickups firing against U.S. aircraft. The installation of the 14.5mm KPV allows the gunner to only fire one shot at the time, making this weapon practially useless against anything but ground targets. This particular pickup was part of a convoy that was later hit by an airstrike while on the main road of Telskuf, resulting in the destruction of the vehicle.

A 'pickup of the 'Storming Battalion' captured by Peshmerga forces. The seal, present on most vehicles operated by armoured formations operating out of Mosul, reads: Wilayat Ninawa- The Soldiers Storming Battalion - Abu Laith al-Ansari's Sector. A brightly painted Islamic State operated M1114 after being captured by the Peshmerga can be seen in the bottommost image.

The main spoils were later displayed in the town itself, including some of the vehicles that participated in the attack. The up-armoured MT-LB can be seen on the right, next to another up-armoured M1114. The bottommost image shows another Tabuk (Zastava M70) rifle converted to fire DIY rifle grenades. This weapon was used by Abu Ridhwan in the video published by VICE, and now appears to have been fitted with a handgrip for better aiming.

One of the 'Storming Battalion's' up-armoured M1114s wrecked after the failed offensive can be seen below. This image clearly shows the professional-looking armoured cabin, complete with two firing ports in front and two viewing ports on the side. The firing port of the gunner sitting next to the driver can be seen in the bottommost image. Although this example is very similar to one of the M1114s seen in the images above, the vehicle is slightly different in certain details.

While previous attacks resulted in defeat after defeat, this attack is believed to have been the first of its kind to have proven succesful during its initial stage. The DIY modifications to the Islamic State's vehicle park and the tactics employed by these vehicles showed that at least some lessons were learned from their previous failures. However, the presence of coalition airpower over the plains of Iraq prevents the Islamic State from using armoured fighting vehicles to their full advantage. While the initial phase of this attack can be deemed a success, the resulting defeat due to U.S. airstrikes makes this attack nothing less than a waste of men and materiel in the end.

The past two years have shown that advancing beyond the currently-held territory North of Mosul is not possible. Even when successfully overrunning Peshmerga positions, coalition airpower will always be decisive in this region of Iraq. The Islamic State can throw everything it has into battle, it can use tactics not seen before and ever more advanced DIY AFVs, but it won't be able to counter the guided-bombs and missiles launched at them. The fact that the Islamic State's military leadership in Mosul has so far failed acknowledge this has once again resulted in the death of roughly 150 fighters (as well as the loss of a significant amount of equipment), and as the situation in Western Iraq appears to be anything but poised to change anytime soon, further offensives and large losses of life are to be expected in the future.

Images two and twenty-two by Operation Valhalla.

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Friday, 6 May 2016

The peculiarity of the Syrian War, Islamic State captures Shaer gas field for a third time

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Shaer gas field, three words that must strike fear into the head of any National Defence Force (NDF) member without any active assignment in Syria. Being stationed at Shaer guarantees heavy action, frequent Islamic State attacks and unfortunately for many drafted recruits, death. The capture of Shaer by the Islamic State on the 5th of May 2016 is the third time that its fighters gained control of the gas field. Shaer and its surrounding checkpoints were under heavy attack since the first of May, and its defenders were ultimately defeated on the 5th of May. The ghaneema (spoils of war) is said to have amounted to no less than twenty T-55s and T-62s, nine howitzers and field guns, ATGMs and a large number of small arms and associated ammunition.

The capture of Shaer stands symbol for a situation that so often happens throughout regime-controlled Syria: Opposing forces overrun poorly trained conscripts defending a location which is massively overstocked with arms, forcing a well-trained and motivated Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) formation to abandon its current offensive in order to recapture the important location that has just been lost, resulting in another stalled offensive or even further terrain loss due to the mass departure of troops. This task is often given to Suheil 'The Tiger' al-Hassan along with his Tiger Force, which was behind the previous two offensives to retake Shaer gas field and will undoubtedly be tasked with recapturing it for a third time again.

While it is not uncommon for places to switch hands several times during the course of the war, losing such an important location three times in just over two years is shocking to say the least. The concentration of armour and artillery both in Shaer and the surrounding checkpoints have always been massive, and should in theory be more than capable of handling the infantry focused tactics empoyed by the Islamic State. A total of thirteen checkpoints were believed to have been set up around Shaer, most with its own armour support or even artillery support. While a suprise Islamic State attack on either one of these checkpoints is incredibly likely to succeed, this puts its fighters within firing range of tanks and artillery stationed at other checkpoints nearby. Indeed, artillery could play a decisive role in keeping fighters of the Islamic State at bay and denying large troop concentrations, especially when assisted by UAVs.

While the concentration of artillery this time around was inferior to the previous defenders, which could call on 122mm 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers and 122mm BM-21 Grad MRLs, it still boosted up to nine 122mm D-30 howitzers and 130mm M-46 field guns, two of which have been visually confirmed by footage of Shaer. While these howitzers and field guns thus could prove a valuable asset in the hands of the defenders, one of the two 122mm D-30 howitzers seen in Islamic State released footage was simply dumped into a corner of its base. In fact, both howitzers were in travel mode, and for one gun this likely indicates that is was left untouched after its arrival at Shaer. The same applied for the single 57mm AZP S-60, also in travel position with its associated ammuntion neatly packed behind the anti-aircraft gun.

While it only appears logical to blame the defenders for their failure to propely deploy the equipment assigned to them, the situation is slightly more complicated. While an inspection of the area and its terrain that is to be defended to see what weapon system is needed and where it needs to be placed sounds logical, the distribution of military hardware is often random and does not take into account the limits of the defenders. For example, artillery can be stationed at a location extremely close to the frontline, or worse, stationed at a location where none of the defenders are capable of operating artillery in the first place. This has led to situations were artillery and anti-aircraft guns were simply dumped into a corner or even outside the perimeter of the base due to a lack of manpower to operate them, the defending troops being incapable of operating sophisticating equipment or a lack of suitable terrain and space to deploy these systems.

While the situation is certainly better with self-propelled artillery and armoured fighting vehicles, as these always come with their own crew, these create another major problem however. As the SyAA was deprived of most of its combat power, its tanks stopped operating in pre-exisiting units (or what was left of them after years of fighting and defections) and were instead individually attached to various NDF units or worse, attached to defend locations such as Shaer. As a result, NDF detachments often consist of 'a tank from this brigade, an artillery gun from this regiment, a conscript from Damascus, a conscript from Aleppo and so on'. This results in units which in fact consist of several individual components, which all received their training elsewhere, rather than a well-oiled machine. This is then further worsened by the composition of personnel in many of these units. While some NDF units consist of conscripts and volunteers from the same town or neighbourhood, most units are made up by personnel with other religions and personal motivations, resulting in distrust among its members. Personal motivations for joining the NDF can range to anything from defending one's town to the need to earn money for one's family to having been drafted after walking by a regime checkpoint at the wrong time, put onto a bus and sent to a military base nearby for training.

The fact that such poorly trained, yet overstocked with arms, units remain responsible for protecting highly important locations highlights the chronic shortage of (well trained and motivated) manpower on the side of the regime. A larger influx of Shiite fighters deployed by Iran can only partially solve this issue, which is unlikely to be ever completely resolved.

While the Islamic State was quick to claim that it had captured twenty T-55s and T-62s, nine howitzers and field guns, ATGMs and a large number of small arms and associated ammunition, images and footage of Shaer and its surrounding checkpoints have so far shown the capture of far less equipment. As the previous NDF detachments defending Shaer could also count on around twenty armoured fighting vehicles, the lack of footage could be due to the large amounts of checkpoints captured on the vast size of the terrain that is Shaer.

The heavy armament seen in footage and images included one T-62 Model 1972, two T-55As (one of which upgraded with the addition of a North Korean laser rangefinder) and one BMP-1. All tanks were captured intact, with the image of the first T-55A indicating this tank took part in defending Shaer but was later abandoned by its operators.

Although claiming to have captured nine artillery pieces, the Islamic State only showed off two 122mm D-30 howitzers in its footage. The claim of capturing a single 57mm AZP S-60 was however, confirmed.

The amount of vehicles found left behind at Shaer was substantial, and included at least twelve technicals and four trucks. All 14.5mm KPV guns, at least six of which found, were removed from the technicals by the fighters of the Islamic State however, likely indicating that not all technicals are to be taken with them. The ZPU-4 armed Isuzu gun truck lost all of its 14.5mm barrels in a similar fashion.

Also captured was a single KamAZ 5350, a truck recently delivered to Syria by Russia. While the rebels and the Islamic State already destroyed several of those trucks, they never managed to capture any examples intact.

The defenders used several gun emplacements up-armoured with metal plating in a bid to protect the operator. Mounted on a truck to be taken away further into Islamic State held territory, this 23mm ZU-23 also lost both of its barrels.

While the Islamic State claimed to have captured both 9M133 Kornets and 9M113 Konkurs anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), a single 9M133 and one 9M14M Malyutka were the only captured ATGMs shown.

Footage of captured small arms was limited to seven AK(Ms) and two RPG-7s along with associated ammunition. The large but empty crate seen below is more interesting however, as this once used to hold Chinese 120mm rocket assisted projectiles (RAP). An impressive 165 of such rounds were previously captured by fighters of the Islamic State at Ayyash on the 20th of January 2016.

One of the facilities at Shaer functioned as weapon depot, and the dozens of bullet holes indicate the history of the facility in the past two years. 242 crates containing a total of 484 cans for 12.7mm and 14.5mm ammunition, 41 crates of 120mm ammunition for a total of 82 120mm rounds, 18 crates of 7.62x39 and 7.62x54 ammunition, for a total of 1320 rounds per crate for x39, 880 for x54 and another 209 unidentied crates were among the spoils found at Shaer and surrounding checkpoints. Quickly loaded on trucks, these too are likely to have been moved further into Islamic State held territory for distribution to other fronts.

While Shaer will undoubtedly be recaptured in the coming months, it represents the current situation so often seen throughout Syria. With no offensive on Deir ez-Zor or Raqqa in sight, and with the Islamic State still in control of large swaths of lands, this situation will undoubtedly continue for the time being. With the gas production at Shaer for regime-held Syria likely to continue, the capture of this strategic gas field will prove to be more than a propaganda victory and major arms haul, yielding a significant financial benefit as well.

Article written in collaboration with MENA_Conflict from Type 63: A collection of Musings on Middle East Conflict.

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