When the history of the Syrian civil war is written, future historians and documentary producers will doubtless be indebted to the fearsome Syrian GoPro equipped tank. For those who don’t know, the GoPro isn’t a missile but the hit consumer action camera that some enterprising person has mounted on Russian-built tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. It allows the viewer to “ride” along on the outside of the tank with actual combatants. and record the POV, almost like a shooter game, of real, live, historical action.
This video, for example, makes it possible to follow the actions of a platoon of tanks in Jobar, Syria, possibly in early 2014. Jobar is a town on the outskirts of Damascus, and a battlefield of the civil war. It was also the site of a reported chemical warfare attack by Assad forces.
It’s a wreck and the video shows what must be Syrian government forces and rebels of some description fighting for control of mile after mile of shattered buildings. Despite the captions and voice over the video would be hard to follow without a narrator. So they provided one with captions in English. But the timeline below makes the narrative of the action even clearer. This link to a Google map will help viewers orient themselves, at least towards the major landmark, the highway.
00:04 Assembling a column
04:55 Crossing enemy territory
10:00 Dropping troops on the enemy’s rear
12:40 Protecting the reinforcements’ route
15:00 Destroying enemy firing points
20:40 Taking out a ATGM
23:10 Rebels counter attack
28:49 Narrowing the encirclement
29:56 Hitting gathered Rebels
39:13 Observers find more Targets
The result is some kind of documentary. It’s a fascinating look at the Syrian, and probably the Russian advised way of war. There are peculiarities about it. As can be deduced from the video, the tanks are used in the same manner as close air support.
They operate out of a base (00:04 Assembling a column), like some sort of cheap terrestrial Apaches, and proceed to various missions like escorting teams of infantry in IFVs (04:55 Crossing enemy territory) or covering their “beachheads” in various built-up sites. (10:00 Dropping troops on the enemy’s rear).
Instead of Hellfire rockets, they have the 125 mm main gun, which is always moving to cover arcs of fire, like a rifleman on the advance. The drivers seem to know their business, never hesitating to trundle down alleys, scoot past possible ambushes and roar over fields.
You may, like myself, have been somewhat astonished to see so little infantry in play. That’s because the infantry is not there to seize and hold terrain. Rather they are used as spotters for the tanks. The big 125s are the killers. The viewer may note how the the tanks flit from spot to spot and fire directly on specific targets. They are not shooting at random, but rather under the specific instruction of spotters. Often they re-engage until the spotter tells them they’re bingo.
For although Jobar seems empty, it is apparently full of eyes. From other GoPro videos the YouTube historian will see that the high rise ruins and ground level structures are really honeycombed with sniper hides and mobile squads of infantry belonging to both sides, The holes in buildings become firing ports, from which ATGM teams and roving bands of infantrymen with RPGs working on both sides of the fight shoot. There are few apparent fortifications. Very little will stop a 125 mm or a Russian 12.7 mm bullet so the rebels shoot and scoot.
It appears to be very difficult for unprotected men to move openly along the roads. There’s a lot of cell phone video showing a Syrian rebel getting totaled by sniper or machine-gun as he pokes his head round a corner. Thus, the Syrian troops prefer to travel in IFVs escorted by tanks, racing past fields of fire like the devil himself were after them. The tanks themselves are plated over with explosive reactive armor tiles (ERA) against the omnipresent danger of ATGMs, which in some other GoPro videos, hit the tanks and cook them off with spectacular results.
So they’re moving, moving, all the time. From time to time an armored recovery vehicle makes an appearance to try and recover a damaged vehicle. But mostly one gets the impression that if you’re hit, well too bad.
The basic storyline is about how the tanks are used to deploy spotters around a rebel pocket and gradually squeeze them down. The IFVs are used like amtracs to land forces all around the stronghold, while the tanks are employed like gunfire support ships sailing around this concrete island of ruins. Then, when the infantry advance to contact, they radio the whereabouts of rebels to the tanks, which blast them with their main guns or shoot through the walls with their coax.
The rebels, for their part, counterattack. The movements are plotted by some command post (not shown) and the pieces are moved around the chessboard by the tactical commander. So the counterattack is met by tank fire from these worn out and dusty AFVs. Finally (28:49 Narrowing the encirclement) the armor finishes them off, resulting allegedly, in the death of 250 rebels, which may or may not be true. However the video clearly attempts to show what the Syrian army (and their Russian advisers) wanted to happen.
The Russians apparently use the GoPro camera as some sort of unit diarist. They will replay the video, especially when tanks ahead are hit, and post them in slow-mo on YouTube with an analysis of what the unit did wrong and what the reaction to contact was. There is an off the shelf quality to the entire mode of war. Everything is beat up and broken down, yet for the most part still effective. The video for example, is so clear and steady as to seem unreal, yet one must constantly remind oneself, it is real. It is the movie images we are accustomed to watching which are unreal.
One of the reasons why the Syrians can do things so economically is the obvious cheapness of life. There is no medevac for troops who are hit. They are dragged out by their comrades and evacuated by IFV. Whether they survive we are not told. There are no closeups of the wounded, no mention beyond the casual, passing reference. Tough luck kid. Nice knowing you. Tanks which are hit (in shown in other videos) are left to burn. Every now and again a shaped charge mine goes off and the crew piles out and the tank trundles on with a dead driver at the controls, until it finishes up against some wall or building. There it stays and nobody makes a move to climb out from under armor to rescue to the occupant.
Civilian life appears to be equally worthless, if not more so. Consequently, the residents of Jobar have apparently fled, leaving not even a dog in the street. The concept of collateral damage simply doesn’t exist. Other videos, depicting cities like Daryya, have a Grozny-like, or Berlin 1945 quality about them. They are completely smashed. Gates are flung into the street, steel grills are twisted like spaghetti, buildings are pockmarked with the measles of small arms fire, roofs are blown in. Every now and again a building spontaneously collapses. Nobody notices.
Unlike the videos provided by the Syrian rebels, the dreaded GoPro tank videos are not punctuated by Allah Akbar! x 20. When the tanks return to base, the crew wearily climb out of the tank, remove the steel cables, wires and pieces of roofing that have festooned themselves on the armored vehicle; they dust off the dreaded GoPro and stumble away, presumably to some meal of flat bread and hummus, if that. Or perhaps some vodka with the Russian.
Presumably somebody maintains the tanks and services them in some way. But there are no amenities in view at the tank park, which appears to be just another group of smashed buildings in another part of the city. There’s a Mad Max air to the whole place, as if it were in an entirely different universe, far different from the jabbering of Beltway talks shows, the sensitivities of liberal campuses, the surreal conferences of the NGOs which we are used to.
But perhaps the true places are exchanged. Maybe it is the talks shows, campuses and conferences that are surreal. Perhaps we are watching warfare as it was, is and will be. The universal soldier fighting on either side of a conflict for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods, even if they are the wrong gods.
The rebels get their licks in too, when the Syrian armor is advancing to contact, in an effort to identify the hidden strong points and the tanks and IFVs have to move through narrow streets.
00:09 Assembling a column
01:26 BMP got hit
03:49 Tank get hits during Reconnaissance. .
11:21 Dropping the Troops . . . .
14:13 Getting the reinforcements
15:08 BMP got hit
17:17 Dropping more troops
19:04 Another Rebel stronghold
20:39 The end .. 13 wounded, 2 killed & 3 BMP’s damaged
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