KFAR NBOUDA, Syria — Ankir Ankir normally drives a wheat harvester, but a battle in December found him piloting a tank, a skill he had learned 17 years ago as an 18-year-old conscript in the Syrian army.
“If the government knew we would use these against them one day, they never would have trained us,” said Ankir, who used a Russian-made T-72 tank captured from government forces to help drive Syrian soldiers from this north-central Syrian town of 25,000.
“We used the tank to destroy another tank, a truck with an anti-aircraft gun and to attack a building the army was using,” Ankir said.
The rebel use of captured tanks and armored personnel carriers was first noticed last summer, though the engagements then were often short. One battle that this reporter witnessed in June outside the city of Talbiseh south of Kfar Nbouda ended quickly when government helicopters destroyed two armored personnel carriers the rebels had captured and turned on government soldiers.
Since then, however, rebels have captured dozens, if not hundreds, of tanks and armored vehicles and have become adept at using them to attack Syrian government positions. The prevalence of rebel armor — in rebel-held areas it’s now common to see tanks and other armored vehicles parked in alleyways and orchards or covered with foliage to camouflage them from airstrikes — belies the common image of the rebels as vastly outgunned by a superior government force.
Just as the rebels have shown themselves able to use what military tacticians call indirect fire — artillery and mortar barrages — to soften up government bases for days or weeks before an assault, they’ve also learned how to deploy tanks and other armored vehicles in their battle against troops loyal to the government of President Bashar Assad.
“They are getting better at basic infantry tactics,” said Jeff White, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I’ve seen videos of tank training, maintenance and tank-to-tank engagements, including one where rebels took out a government tank from about 1,000 meters” — about six-tenths of a mile.
Ankir said he performs routine maintenance on his tank, just as he does on the combines used at harvest time. On Wednesday, he checked the oil and adjusted tank treads with a hammer, and said he expected to drive the tank again when rebels executed an attack they have been planning on a nearby military position.
Jamal Marouf, the leader of the Syrian Martyr’s Brigade, an independent rebel group that has several battalions of fighters spanning provinces in northern and central Syria, said that they were employing captured tanks in multiple ongoing engagements as they focus on taking over parts of the country’s main north-south highway.
Tanks have been seen in assaults on bases in Deir el Zour province in the country’s east and at Ras al-Ayn in Hasaka province, on the border with Turkey. In those two cases, the tanks were under the control of the Nusra Front, a key rebel unit that the United States accuses of being affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq.
The Syrian government’s policy of obligatory military service means the rebels have no difficulty finding former soldiers who know how to operate and fix the vehicles.
“We have many mechanics and technicians,” Marouf said.
Marouf’s brigade has been at the forefront of the fight in northern Idlib province and was one of the first to successfully down government jets with captured 23 mm anti-aircraft guns.
“Every time we get a new weapon, I am responsible for training people how to use it,” said a retired Syrian army colonel who works with Marouf and uses the pseudonym Abu Yassin. “We have pilots, but no planes yet.”
Ankir said that Syrian army radio transmissions — the rebels and soldiers often use the same radio frequencies — suggested that the tanks are having an effect.
“They are now digging trenches to protect themselves from the shelling on their bases, just like we have to do,” he said proudly.
But as the rebels escalate their firepower, so does the government. The latest example is the government’s use of ballistic missiles — SCUDs and so-called Frogs, “free rocket over ground” — that have claimed scores of lives in the past week. Near Kfar Nbouda, the end of a ballistic missile lay in a field near a crater more than 20 feet wide. No one was hurt when the unguided rocket crashed to the ground, but more than 140 people reportedly have died in a handful of suspected SCUD attacks in northern Syria in the past week. The conflict already has left more than 70,000 dead, by United Nations estimates, since it began nearly two years ago.
“It will be a difficult harvest this year,” Ankir said. “I am sure that many fields will be burned.”
(Enders is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)