Syrian soldiers advance behind a T-72AV during the battle of quseir, May 2013. (Source: http://milinme.wordpress.com/category/t-72/)
On paper the Syrian army is a huge, well trained and disciplined force that should easily be winning the civil war. In 2011, the Syrian Army comprised 220,000 personnel, most of whom were conscripts. But the regime now feels unable to deploy many of its units because of questionable loyalty to the Assad family.
The 4th Armoured division is considered by many to be most powerful and feared unit in the Syrian army. I’ve read differing accounts of it’s structure and exactly which units are attached to it. But according to Joseph Holliday in his excellent Syrian Army Doctrinal Order of Battle It is organized in similar fashion to the conventional armoured divisions, with three armored brigades and one mechanized brigade. Each armored brigade is made up of three armoured battalions and one mechanized battalion. In theory that should mean the unit could field up to 300 Main battle tanks and at least 10,000 men with over 100 Infantry fighting vehicles (such as the BMP 2) and attached Artillery and engineering assets.
Syrian Republican Guard BMP-2 APCs, March 2013. – source – http://milinme.wordpress.com
The unit has been at the heart of many battles and has been implicated in numerous massacres. Khattar Abou Diaba, a political scientist at Paris University says, “The 4th Armoured division is known for its brutality and is a symbol of the Syrian regimes striking force.” It traces its lineage back to the paramilitary “Defence Companies” that were instrumental in defeating the Muslim brotherhood uprising of 1982. These companies were trained by the Soviet Spetznaz and were tasked with defending the regime against threats from within Syria.
The 4th Armoured is commanded by Maj. Gen. Mohamed Ali Durgham but in reality the de facto commander is Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother Maher, a tough hardliner nicknamed “the butcher of Deraa” for his part in crushing the protests there in 2011. The division mainly contains career soldiers of whom approximately eighty percent are from the Alawite sect.
It is based at Mazzeh barracks in the southern suburbs of Damascus, close to the Presidential palace. Ideally located to be the last line of defence against any threat to the regime, including an Israeli invasion.
Mazzeh barracks, Damascus
Because many other units in the Syrian Army are considered unreliable the 4th Armoured division has often been broken up into small elements that are assigned to “nanny” less motivated units. They have been at the forefront of much of the fighting around Homs and in Damascus, because of this they have suffered heavy casualties and been granted little R and R.
The unit is equipped with the best weapons available to Assad. They include the T-72AV which has explosive reactive armour fitted to hull front and turret.
The video below shows a regime T-72 tank coming under attack in Eastern Ghouta and the crew trying to escape under fire, I’m not sure if they are from the 4th Armoured division but it is very possible ( as a grizzly side bar you may notice that the soldier who is eventually killed is already missing a foot as he crawls out of the tank)
And in this fascinating video a Syrian Tank Commander explains the weaknesses of the T-72AV
Even an elite unit like the 4th has defectors. In the video below one of them recounts what he witnessed as a member of the unit in late 2011 and early 2012. I haven’t been able to verify this video but it is an interesting watch.
If you want to discover more about life in a regime army unit then then this first hand account that appeared in the Daily Beast is excellent:
After six months’ basic training in Khan Ash Shaykh, I was made a sergeant in charge of a BMP [a Russian-made armored personnel carrier] section. I was in charge of 14 privates in my unit, almost all young Sunni Arab guys. Kurds like me usually don’t get made sergeant. There were 16 sections like mine in my company with a captain in charge. There were no lieutenants in our unit, just musa’ada, or warrant officers, to help the captain.
Our captain had a very strong voice and a strong personality; he was an Alawi like most officers. He never sounded unsure of himself or conflicted about what we had to do in Dara’a. While he got his orders from the ameed, the colonel, mostly he had freedom to do anything he wanted in our assigned area: arrests, raids, shootings, destroying buildings.
Our unit was sent to Dara’a after the protests started in March of 2011 and our area was at the center of the problems because it contained the Umari mosque. There was no base for us in Dara’a so we took over an elementary school and turned it into our base. At the beginning we never worried about being attacked, we just had to deal with protests. We thought we would be there for a few weeks and then things would settle down.
When we arrived in Dara’a we were given strict orders to never speak with civilians there. Not during arrests, not breaking up protests, not on patrols. You would be beaten and sent to jail if you were seen speaking at length with civilians. We were told repeatedly that the protests were instigated by infiltrating foreigners, mostly supported by the U.S. and Western powers to undermine Syria, and that most of the protesters weren’t even Syrian. We were told they were Iranians, Afghanis, Americans, and Pakistanis forming these groups. As time went by it was obvious this wasn’t true and much of it didn’t make sense, but you couldn’t speak openly about it. At first, most of us just accepted that foreigners were behind it all.
In the beginning we were strictly prohibited from shooting at the protesters and the officers were very careful to avoid confrontation. At first we would just show up and surround the protests and hope that the show of force would convince them to disperse. Almost all of the protests started after Friday prayer at the mosques, because that is when all the men in the area gather together. We came to expect that every Friday we would have to break up a protest, but they grew larger and larger. When they became too large for us to arrest and disperse we began firing over the crowd or at unoccupied buildings nearby. When this didn’t work, my captain ordered me to fire a tank shell into a building near the protesters, but we didn’t kill anyone until later in April. . .You can read the full article here
This article is only an introduction to the syrian 4th armoured division and is still a work in progress so if you have any further information about the structure, equipment and combat operations of the unit, and any others of the Syrian army, then please do drop me a line.