Why did Turkish soldiers suffer a terrible defeat although they were equipped with one of the best and most modern combat tools?
The year 2016 was one of the worst years in the history of the modern day Turkish Army (Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri – TSK). First, on July 15, a part of the land forces, mainly mechanized and armored, left their barracks in an attempt to overthrow President Recep Erdoğan. The putsch ended in a fiasco already after several hours, and led to a series of purges within the TSK. A few months later, the weakened Turkish Army was sent to fight in northern Syria. The formal aim of Operation Euphrates Shield was fighting against forces of the Islamic State (IS), but Ankara cared more about stopping the advancement of the Syrian Kurdish forces. Decimated due to mass arrests among officers and troops, the TSK was not able to execute its tasks properly. Turkish forces, supported by the “pro-democratic” Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups, got stuck already a dozen or so kilometers from the border, and each advancement was paid for by big losses in men and equipment. At that time, the world saw shocking videos showing militants easily destroying Turkish tanks with ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles). Between August and October 2016, the Turks lost in northern Syria a dozen or so M-60A3 tanks and at least as many various armored vehicles. The so far invincible Turkish army began to rock on its foundations. It is no wonder then that the desperate Turks made a fateful decision in the late fall of 2016 to send to the Syrian front their best machines – Leopards 2A4.
Turkey has 325–350 (according to various sources) tanks of this type. They received them from the German Bundeswehr’s surplus at the beginning of the century, on the condition that the Leopards would never be used in warfare against the Kurdish community in Turkey. Leopards 2A4, the most modern tanks in Turkish arsenal, equipped units of the Turkish 1st Army, deployed in the west and the north of the country. Turkish Leopards’ crews were trained according to highest NATO standards, but unfortunately the machines were not adjusted to quickly changing battlefield conditions.
In December 2016, the Turkish General Staff decided to transfer to the Syrian front several TSK battalions equipped with the Leopard 2A4 tanks, mainly from the 2nd Brigade. Meanwhile, Turkish situation in Operation Euphrates Shield was so bad that when the Turkish Army’s armored units got to the transfer point in southern Turkey, they immediately had to join the operation in neighboring Syria.
In the middle of December 2016, the pro-Turkish FSA groups, supported by TSK detachments and the Turkish Air Force, launched yet another offensive on al-Bab, a city heavily fortified by IS militants. Ankara was anxious to seize the agglomeration before it was reached by the Syrian Armed Forces or Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) units. The fighting peaked between December 12-17, 2016, and December 16 proved to be particularly ill-fated. On that day, during another attack undertaken by the Turkish forces and the FSA on al-Bab’s western suburb, about 30 Leopard 2A4s and 10 to12 M60Ts Sabra (Turkish modification of the tank done by the Israelis) were used. The potential was quite big, but the machines were sent to fight without proper cover of their own infantry – apart from several hundred FSA Syrians, mainly in Turkish armored combat vehicles (ACV-15 and Otokar Cobra), and several dozen TSK Special Forces soldiers.
The weather was also not a friend of the Turks – below zero temperatures, cloudy skies, fog, and occasional snowfalls made it difficult for the air force and artillery to operate. On top of that, the attackers constantly had to struggle with mobile IS task forces equipped with heavy machine guns, RPGs and ATGM launchers. As a result, Caliphate’s militants not only successfully slowed down the Turkish Army’s attack, but also thwarted its command’s original plan. It was forced to divide the units into many smaller groups and attack the Islamists’ separate resistance points. The Turks led themselves straight into the interrelated and complementary system of traps and ambushes prepared by the IS. The consequences of the several-hour chaotic battle conducted in such conditions proved fatal for the Turkish Army’s elite armored forces.
To this day it is not clear what exactly happened on December 16, 2016. The only known fact is that ten eliminated Leopards and several other Turkish vehicles remained on the battlefield after the defeat. At least five of those machines were completely burnt and destroyed, with ripped off turrets or hulls torn apart by anti-tank ammunition. Two least damaged Leopards were taken off the battlefield by the Islamists as a military trophy. With time, many analyses on the course of the battle of al-Bab were prepared, basing on, for example, evaluation of photos taken on the battlefield. However, all photos and videos come from IS propaganda materials, and some of them were taken or recorded several weeks after the battle.
According to experts, at least six of the ten eliminated Leopards were successfully hit (with various results) by guided anti-tank missiles (Fagot or Konkurs), three were destroyed by IEDs or fougasses, and one was severely damaged with a SVBIED (Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device). This suggests that the attacking Turkish-Syrian group got into a well-prepared ambush organized by the Islamists. Another proof is that all Leopards eliminated by ATGMs were hit on the side or the rear, where the armor is the weakest. Therefore, it is a very reliable evidence that the attacking tanks were not properly protected by own infantry.
Some specialists say the degree of destruction suffered by at least three tanks suggests also that after the battle they were probably “finished off” by the Turkish Air Force, so that the IS would not seize them for further use. We also still do not know how many crew members were killed in the ambush near al-Bab. For a long time, the Turkish Army’s command denied having lost any Leopards in Syria.
News from Syria regarding the scale of losses suffered by the Turkish armored forces were shocking not only for experts dealing with the military and security on a daily basis, but also the public opinion in the West, especially in Germany. No wonder – the Turkish defeat near al-Bab was not only the first irreversible combat damage suffered by the Leopard 2 tank since the moment it had been introduced into service four decades ago, but also probably the first case where an army sending state-of-the-art tanks to fight, lost so many machines in one (asymmetric!) clash. Such a spectacular defeat had not been “achieved” even by the Iraqis, using the American Abrams A1M1-SA machines quite incompetently in the fights with IS units in western Iraq in 2014–2015.
The situation in Syria has revived the at least two-decade-long discussion about the future of tanks, particularly their utility in the world dominated by asymmetric warfare. It is worth to keep in mind, though, that Leopards, as well as other types of advanced tanks, are combat machines designed and built according to traditional rules of how armored forces should operate on the battlefield, i.e. conducting tank battles in close cooperation with the infantry, air force and artillery, as opposed to operations in urbanized areas (and without proper reconnaissance and support) or counterinsurgency (COIN) and asymmetric operations.
The December 2016 battle of al-Bab, lost by the Turks, also requires proper placement in the operational and political context. There is no doubt that the problem did not lie in the tanks as such, but more in the crews of particular machines, as well as strategic level commanders, and politicians who decided to carry out the operation. December 2016 was the time when repressions in the Turkish Army reached their peak. Not only the morale, but also the soldiers’ objective combat capabilities were significantly impaired at the time. This was especially true for units that most actively participated in the attempt to overthrow the constitutional order in Turkey. One of such units was the 2nd Armored Brigade from Istanbul. On the evening of July 15, 2016, the Brigade’s Leopards blocked bridges on Bosporus, as well as the main squares and intersections in the city. Possibly, some of them were the same machines which five months later ended their life near al-Bab. Even so, the crews fighting in Syria were most definitely brand new – undertrained, lacking coordination, and poorly commanded, both at the team level and higher. The total of all those mistakes resulted in one of the biggest defeats suffered by the Turkish Army in its 100-year history. What made it even more humiliating was that the Turkish soldiers were equipped with the Leopard 2 – undoubtedly one of the most advanced and best warfare tools in its class, now and for a long time to come.
autor zdjęć: Xinhua / Eyevine / Forum